The gender gap in life expectancy is widening in the United States, with men dying an average of six years before women. This is the conclusion of a study conducted by experts from UC San Francisco and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The researchers found that by 2021, the disparity in lifespan between American men and women had expanded to 5.8 years, marking the largest gap since 1996. This increase is notable compared to 2010, when the difference was at a historic low of 4.8 years.
The research highlights several factors contributing to the growing gender gap. The COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacted men, was the primary driver of this widening gap during 2019-2021.
The contribution of the pandemic was closely followed by unintentional injuries and poisonings – largely attributed to drug overdoses – along with accidents and suicide.
“There’s been a lot of research into the decline in life expectancy in recent years, but no one has systematically analyzed why the gap between men and women has been widening since 2010,” noted study first author Dr. Brandon Yan.
In 2021, life expectancy in the U.S. fell to 76.1 years, a drop from 78.8 years in 2019 and 77 years in 2020. This decrease has been partially attributed to “deaths of despair,” a term that describes the rise in fatalities due to suicide, drug use disorders, and alcoholic liver disease. Deaths of despair are often linked to factors like economic hardship, depression, and stress.
The study revealed that while both men and women have experienced increased rates of death from drug overdose and homicide, men represent a disproportionately larger share of these deaths.
To address this troubling trend, the researchers used data from the National Center for Health Statistics to pinpoint the primary causes of reduced life expectancy.
The team then assessed the impact of these causes on both men and women to determine their contribution to the widening gap.
Before the pandemic, the leading contributors to the life expectancy gap were unintentional injuries, diabetes, suicide, homicide, and heart disease.
However, during the pandemic, COVID-19 significantly affected the mortality rates of men more than women. Factors such as health behaviors, occupational exposure risks, reluctance to seek medical care, incarceration, and housing instability were likely contributors to this trend.
Additionally, chronic metabolic disorders, mental illness, and gun violence played a role in exacerbating the gender differences in life expectancy.
Dr. Yan said the results raise questions about whether more specialized care for men should be developed to address the growing issue.
“We have brought insights to a worrisome trend,” said Dr. Yan. “Future research ought to help focus public health interventions towards helping reverse this decline in life expectancy.”
The researchers also noted that further analysis is needed to see if these trends change after 2021.
“We need to track these trends closely as the pandemic recedes,” said study senior author Dr. Howard Koh. “And we must make significant investments in prevention and care to ensure that this widening disparity, among many others, do not become entrenched.”
The study is published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
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