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Chartbook on Women and Disability

Section 6: Women, disability and aging

6.1. How do changes in women's life expectancies impact disability rates?

The average life expectancy for women has increased markedly in the past century, from 48.3 years in 1900 to 78.9 years in 1991. As shown below, the increase in life expectancy for older women has been especially dramatic in the second half of the century. In 1900, people who were 50 years old rarely lived to the age of 90. Even in 1950, only 10% of 50 year-old women could expect to survive to the age of 90. However, by 1990, nearly one-quarter of 50-year-old women could expect to live to the age of 90.

Almost one out of every four women who were 50 years old in 1990 can expect to live to the age of 90.

Vertical bar chart. Go to Data Table for Figure 25 for the data values shown in this chart.

Figure 25: Percentage of women and men who were 50 years old in 1900, 1950, and 1990, who can expect to live to the age of 90

Data Table for Figure 25

Source: Guralnik, et al. (1997).

Surveys: National Center for Health Statistics and U.S. Bureau of the Census, multiple surveys and multiple years

Changes in birth and mortality rates are leading to large increases in the population of older people, especially older women. By the year 2040, women 65 and older are projected to number 40.8 million, nearly nine times the number of women who were 65 and older in 1940. Even more striking is the fact that more than one in five of these elderly women will be 85 years of age or older, the group most likely to be disabled by chronic health conditions. Women live longer than men, but have more physical disability in each age group.

As discussed later in this section, these older women are less likely to be able to live independently and more likely to require personal assistance, compared to men in the same age group.

The population of elderly women is expected to increase dramatically by the year 2040.

Growth of the Older Population in the United States, 1940 to 2040

  Age 65+ Age 85+
  Women Men Women Men
Year Number %
of all
Number %
of all
Number % of
Number % of
1940 4,621,754 7.0 4,409,377 6.6 211,440 4.6 158,835 3.6
1960 9,132,912 10.0 7,542,119 8.4 573,802 6.3 366,252 4.9
1990 18,586,677 14.6 12,492,997 10.3 2,180,451 11.7 841,266 6.7
2020 29,443,000 17.9 23,776,000 15.0 4,319,000 14.7 2,141,000 9.0
2040 40,812,000 21.6 34,421,000 19.0 8,449,000 20.7 5,103,000 14.8

Table 7: Growth and estimated growth of the older population in the United States, 1940-2040

Source: Guralnik, et al. (1997); Day (1996)

Surveys: U.S. Bureau of the Census, multiple years, and U.S. Bureau of the Census projections

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