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Older Women Live Longer, But With More Disability and Financial Challenges Than Men

Older women in the United States continue to live longer than men, on average, but they’re spending an increasing share of their later years living with a disability, research suggests.

“Women may be living longer but not healthier lives than men,” says Eileen Crimmins of the University of Southern California. Her team examined life expectancy and disability rates in the 40-year period from 1970 to 2010.1Their analysis of U.S. vital statistics shows that both men and women saw lifespan increases, but women are spending a larger share of the additional years with a disability than men.

Other researchers see similar patterns. “Just a few decades ago, older women used to spend more time in their later years functioning independently than men—without needing help taking care of themselves or managing basic household activities,” says Vicki Freedman of the University of Michigan. Her research team examined data on disability trends among U.S. Medicare enrollees from 1982, 2004, and 2011.2

Freedman and colleagues compared disability rates from two nationally representative studies—the National Health and Aging Trends Study and the National Long Term Care Survey. They found over the 30-year period that the time adults ages 65 and older can expect to live without physical or activity limitations (called active life expectancy) increased more than twice as much for men than for women.

“Women can no longer expect to live more active years than older men, despite living longer,” she notes. Women are more likely than men to develop a number of debilitating conditions such as arthritis, fall-related fractures, and dementia that could limit their ability to remain independent without assistance.

Women facing such health and long-term care needs in late life are at a further disadvantage to men, research also suggests, because on average they have fewer resources.3 Their economic resources are not only linked to work- and family-related decisions made over a lifetime, but also to choices about the timing of retirement.

Despite Disability, Older Adults May Try to Postpone Retirement Because of Debt

Population Reference Bureau’s publication, “Health and Working Past Traditional Retirement Ages,” notes that when workers were asked to assess their capacity to continue working at their current job, their health and disability shaped their perceptions and were linked to whether they retired within roughly 1.5 years.4

Between 1994 and 2012 nearly one in three older Americans ages 65 to 69 were either retired or unemployed but were healthy enough to work.5 A growing body of research, however, finds evidence that baby boomers nearing traditional retirement ages may have higher levels of disability than earlier generations, which could constrain their ability to remain on the job.6

Older adults must also factor personal finances into retirement decisions. In coming years, high levels of debt may contribute to more men and women postponing retirement despite their health and disability levels.

A team of researchers finds a “dramatic increase” in the amount of debt carried by older Americans nearing retirement ages (ages 62 to 66 in 2010). National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) affiliates Annamaria Lusardi of The George Washington University, Olivia S. Mitchell of the University of Pennsylvania, and Noemi Oggero of the University of Turin attribute this age group’s financial distress mainly to “having purchased more expensive homes with smaller down payments” than previous generations.7

Using data from the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and the National Financial Capability Study, they analyzed the debt of Americans ages 56 to 61 in 1992, 2004, and 2010. Their analysis shows that the median debt-to-income ratio (the percentage of income that goes to debt payments) climbed from 14 percent in 1992 to 45 percent in 2004, and to 50 percent in 2010. The median amount of debt rose sharply between 1992 and 2004, from $6,800 to $31,200 in 2015 dollars.

Their analysis also shows that while older adults nearing traditional retirement ages in 2010 carried more debt than their counterparts in earlier years, they carried less debt than adults further from traditional retirement ages (ages 56 to 61) in 2010. “While people’s financial situation does seem to improve with age, the older group is still financially distressed,” they write.

Married Women Who Retire Earlier Take a Financial Hit

Even without high levels of debt, married women face challenging retirement decisions—with unclear tradeoffs.

American married women tend to be younger than their husbands but retire around the same time, contributing to a gender gap in lifetime Social Security benefits, finds Nicole Maestas of NBER and Harvard University.8

By retiring early, older married women often forego both substantial future earnings and additional Social Security benefits that they would have received if they had worked longer, her analysis shows. They also incur health insurance costs if they retire before age 65, when they become eligible for Medicare.

“Unless married couples have other assets—from savings, for example—women’s younger retirement age means they have less wealth to live on during their remaining life together, and during any subsequent divorce or widowhood,” she says.

Older women face an important tradeoff between spending time with their retired husbands and continuing to work to increase their Social Security benefits and savings.

Nicole Maestas

Maestas finds that working extra years beyond midlife has a greater impact on the current value of older women’s lifetime Social Security benefits than it does for men for two reasons: Older women commonly have shorter careers than older men (often delaying or interrupting employment to care for children), and their earnings tend to peak in their late 50s—men tend to work continuously and their earnings peak earlier.

“If women chose to work longer, their earnings later in life would replace their lower earnings in earlier years in calculating their Social Security benefits,” she explains.

Social Security benefits at age 65 are based on an individual’s highest annual earnings over a 35-year period. Maestas calculates that married older men and women are on nearly equal footing in terms of the value of their Social Security benefits over their remaining lifetime if they both work until age 70. “But older women face an important tradeoff between spending time with their retired husbands and continuing to work to increase their Social Security benefits and savings,” she points out.

For the study, she used nationally representative HRS data and compared two groups over time—the “early cohort,” born from 1936 to 1947, and the “boomer cohort,” born from 1948 to 1959.

For both cohorts, women were more likely than men to retire “early”—before age 62—or move from full- to part-time employment. In the boomer cohort, 47 percent of women retired or transitioned to part-time work early, but only 41 percent of men did so.

Married Women Could Close the Gender Gap in Social Security by Working Longer

Baby boomer women spent more time in the labor force than their predecessors so are now poised to receive higher individual benefits. The average value of lifetime Social Security benefit for baby boomer women is about $145,000, 26 percent greater than for the early cohort. For baby boom men, the value is only about 7 percent higher than the earlier cohort.

Maestas’ calculations also show substantially higher lifetime benefits for women in both cohorts if they work until age 70. By contrast, men see no gains by working until age 70, illustrating the financial impact made by women’s interrupted careers. Maestas concludes that if women are physically and cognitively able to work through their 60s, they could virtually eliminate the gender gap in lifetime Social Security benefits.

And attitudes toward working longer may be shifting among women. Lusardi and Mitchell report that in recent generations women in their 50s and 60s are more likely than their peers from the early 1990s to say they plan to work to older ages.9 But the match—or mismatch—between their level of physical and cognitive functioning and the demands of their jobs will play a large role in determining whether they can continue to work as they have planned, according to Freedman.


A portion of a summary by Morgan Foy, National Bureau of Economic Research, was adapted for this piece and used with permission.




1 Eileen Crimmins, Yuan Zhang, and Yasuhiko Saito, “Trends Over Four Decades in Disability-Free Life Expectancy in the United States,” American Journal of Public Health 106, no. 7 (2016): 1287-93.

2 Vicki Freedman, Douglas A. Wolf, and Brenda C. Spillman, “Disability-Free Life Expectancy Over 30 Years: A Growing Female Disadvantage in the U.S. Population,” American Journal of Public Health 106, no. 6 (2016): 1079-85.

3 Robert Hauser and Erin Ruel, “Explaining the Gender Wealth Gap,” Demography 50, no. 4 (2013): 1155-76.

4 Alyssa McGonagle et al., “Individual and Work Factors Related to Perceived Work Ability and Labor Force Outcomes,” Journal of Applied Psychology 100, no. 2 (2015): 376-98.

5 Courtney Coile, Kevin S. Milligan, and David A. Wise, “Health Capacity to Work at Older Ages: Evidence From the United States,” in Social Security Programs and Retirement Around the World: The Capacity to Work at Older Ages, National Bureau of Economic Research Conference Report, ed., David Wise (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

6 Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez, Marsha Jiménez, and S.V. Subramanian, “Assessing Morbidity Compression in Two Cohorts From the Health and Retirement Study,” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 70, no. 10 (2016): 1011-66; HwaJung Choi and Robert Schoeni, “Health of Americans Who Must Work Longer to Reach Social Security Retirement Age,” Health Affairs 36, no. 10 (2017): 1815-19; and HwaJung Choi, Robert Schoeni, and Linda G. Martin, “Are Functional and Activity Limitations Becoming More Prevalent Among 55- to 69-year-olds in the United States?” PLoS One 11, no. 10 (2016): e0164565.

7 Annamaria Lusardi, Olivia S. Mitchell, and Noemi Oggero, “Debt and Financial Vulnerability on the Verge of Retirement,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 23664 (Aug. 2017).

8 Nicole Maestas, “The Return to Work and Women’s Employment Decisions,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper no. 24429 (March 2018).

9 Annamaria Lusardi and Olivia S. Mitchell, “Older Women’s Labor Market Attachment, Retirement Planning, and Household Debt,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 22606 (Sept. 2016).