A woman's life expectancy has increased from 48.3 years in 1900 to 79.4 years in 1997. Today, our challenge is to make those extra years of life healthy and productive. Women represent 51 percent of the total U.S. population; 59 percent of the over-65 population; and 71 percent of Americans older than age 85, the fastest growing segment of the population. Women also constitute 46 percent of the nation's workforce. They make up 52 percent of the voting-age population, and they are more likely to vote in national elections than are men. In 1996, 55.5 percent of women voted in contrast to 52.8 percent of men.
A woman's health reflects both her individual biology and her sociocultural, economic, and physical environments. These factors affect both the duration and the quality of her life. For example, the average life expectancy for a woman varies considerably according to her race. In 1997, the average life expectancy for white women was 5 years longer than that of African American women (80 years versus 75 years). Women who live in poverty or have less than a high school education have shorter life spans; higher rates of illness, injury, disability, and death; and more limited access to high-quality health care services. Historically, women have also been the primary health care providers and health decision-makers for their families. Nearly two-thirds of women polled in a recent national survey indicated that they alone were responsible for health care decisions within their family, and 83 percent had sole or shared responsibility for financial decisions regarding their family's health. Women are also the primary care givers for ill or disabled family members. Of the estimated 15 percent of Americans who are informal care givers, an estimated 72 percent are women-many of them sandwiched between caring for an ailing relative and caring for their own children.