Women are more likely than men to struggle with regular daily tasks and mobility tasks as they age, according to new research published in The Lancet Health Longevity.

The researchers from University College London (UCL) and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) conducted an analysis of four large longitudinal cohort studies, using data from more than 27,000 men and 34,000 women aged 50 to 100.

Women are more likely than men to be limited in their ‘functional capacity’

They set out to examine sex differences in daily activity and mobility limitations, and found that 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, women were more likely to have three or more mobility issues or limitations with complex daily tasks compared to men, who were more likely to have just one or two. By the age of 85, the prevalence of three or more mobility issues was 10% higher in women than in men.

Mobility issues included going up a flight of stairs, lifting grocery shopping, and reaching or extending arms, while complex tasks included things like managing money, using the phone, taking medication and making meals.

Lead author, Mikaela Bloomberg (PhD Candidate, UCL Epidemiology and Public Health) said the findings are 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.”

The findings are important to policy makers looking to help reduce the inequality gap

The authors add that the historical differences between men and women in socioeconomic factors, such as education and entrance to the labour force, may in part explain these differences, as low education and unpaid labour disproportionately expose women to health risks that can lead to disability.

As Bloomberg explains: “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.

“And 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.”

The authors say the findings are important to policy makers looking to help reduce the inequality gap, highlighting the importance of gender equity in education and employment for health outcomes in old age but noted some limitations to the data including lack of clinical data on chronic conditions.