Older men are living longer and enjoying more active lives than ever before. In fact, in a dramatic change from three decades ago, these men can now expect their last decades of life to look very much like that of women.

Even as men live longer, they are less likely to suffer physical limitations than in past years, and when they do, those disabilities will come later in life, according to a new study by Vicki Freedman of the University of Michigan, Doug Wolf of Syracuse University, and my colleague Brenda Spillman of the Urban Institute.  The three published their results in the American Journal of Public Health. It is available online here (paywall).

The result: a longer, more active old age for men that now nearly mirrors women. The authors followed this fascinating trend by looking at 30 years of data—from 1982 to 2011—from two major national surveys of older adults.

Women still live longer than men, but the gap is shrinking. While life expectancy for both sexes is increasing, it is growing more rapidly for men, thus they are closing this particular gender gap. The shift is largely due to changes in medical technology and public health. For example, better treatment and prevention for heart disease—which disproportionately kills men—is extending the lives of males. Women not only benefit less from these improvements, but because they are now almost as likely to have smoked as men, their rates of lung disease are almost as high.

In addition, women are far more likely to develop and die from Alzheimer’s Disease than men. For example, the Alzheimer’s Association reports that a 75-year old woman is twice as likely to have dementia as a man of the same age.

Disability at older ages

Changes in disability among older men and women have been dramatic over the past three decades. The researchers found that the share of older men living with a disability fell from 22.3 percent in 1982 to 15.3 percent in 2004, then rose slightly to 16.6 percent by 2011. The pattern for women was very different. While one-quarter of women lived with some disability in 1982, only one-fifth had some functional limitations by 2004. But by 2011, disability rates for older women had returned to nearly the same level as 30 years earlier. Thus, in 2011 older men were significantly less likely than women to have some disability.

Importantly, the study found that there has been little change in the prevalence of high levels of personal care needs over the past 30 years. The authors define this as needing assistance with three or more daily activities, such as bathing, eating, or dressing.

Yet, in other ways, quality of life has improved for men, and not so much for women. By 2011, men and women at age 65 were likely to live just about as long without a disability–roughly 15 years. The story is even more dramatic at older ages: An 85-year-old woman was likely to live without functional limitations for about two-and-a-half years, roughly as long as in 1982. But for men, those good years increased from 2.5 in 1982 to almost four in 2011.

This profound change in life expectancy and frailty has important consequences for families and society at large. For instance, among couples it may mean more husbands will available to care for frail wives (whether they are willing or equipped is another matter).

It may also change housing preferences. Couples may want to live in different environments than singles. And among those singles, men may want to live differently than women. Will assisted living facilities start building man caves?

It is hard to know just how these trends will play out. But this study shows that the stereotype of older women living longer, more active lives than men is much less true than it was three decades ago.