Tasks like climbing stairs, lifting groceries or using the phone may be more difficult for women than men as they age, a new study has suggested.
However, researchers say that while women struggle more with both regular daily tasks and mobility activities as they get older, the disparities have been steadily decreasing as the socioeconomic gap between the sexes has decreased.
The research uses data from more than 27,000 men and 34,000 women aged 50 to 100, born between 1895 and 1960, to examine sex differences in daily activity and mobility limitations.
The information was obtained from four large longitudinal studies, covering 14 countries.
Lead author Mikaela Bloomberg, PhD candidate, UCL epidemiology and public health, said: “We found that women are more likely to be limited than men in carrying out daily tasks from age 70 while we observed women were more likely to be limited in mobility activities from age 50 onward.
“This is an important observation because mobility limitations can precede other more severe limitations and targeting these gaps at middle age could be one way to reduce sex differences in limitations at older ages.”
Overall, the researchers found women were more likely than men to be limited in their functional capacity – both tasks and mobility – as they get older.
From the age of 75, they were also more likely to have three or more mobility issues, for example going up a flight of stairs, lifting grocery shopping or reaching/extending the arms.
They were also more likely to have limitations with more complex daily tasks like managing money, using the telephone, taking medication or making meals, compared to men who were more likely to have just one or two.
The researchers found that at age 85 the prevalence of three or more mobility limitations was 10% higher in women than in men.
They consider how historical differences between men and women in socioeconomic factors such as education and entrance to the labour force may in part explain these differences.
This is because low education and domestic and unpaid labour disproportionately expose women to health risks that can lead to disability.
Ms Bloomberg said: “It appears that gender inequalities in the ability to carry out daily tasks at older age are decreasing over time and this could be explained by the fact that women have better access to education and are more likely to enter the paid labour force in recent generations.
“Although reductions in socioeconomic inequalities may be associated with smaller disparities in simple daily tasks, we did not see the same reductions in sex disparities for mobility after accounting for socioeconomic factors.
“This might be partly due to sex differences in body composition such as body mass and skeletal muscle index, but more research is needed to identify other factors.”
Researchers say the findings are significant for policymakers looking to help reduce the inequality gap, highlighting the importance of gender equity in education and employment for health outcomes in old age.
However, they noted some limitations to the data including a lack of clinical data on chronic conditions.
The study, published in The Lancet Healthy Longevity, was led by researchers at UCL and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) in France.
Funding for the study was provided by the National Institute on Aging, UK National Institute for Health Research, European Commission, and the US Social Security Administration.