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Women in the US now live 6 years longer than men as life expectancy gap widens

In a significant development highlighted by recent research, the life expectancy gap between men and women in the United States has been widening, reaching its largest margin since 1996.

A comprehensive study, jointly led by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reveals this alarming trend.

Life expectancy in the US

The research paper indicates that in 2021, the life expectancy difference between American men and women expanded to 5.8 years, up from 4.8 years in 2010. This period marks the most significant disparity in over two decades.

The study’s first author is Brandon Yan, MD, MPH, an internal medicine resident physician at UCSF and a research collaborator at Harvard Chan School. Yan highlights the lack of systematic analysis in the past to understand why this gap has been growing since 2010.

“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,” said Yan.

Factors causing to the widening gap

The COVID-19 pandemic emerges as the primary factor contributing to this growing disparity from 2019 to 2021. Men were disproportionately affected by the virus, leading to a more significant decrease in their life expectancy. The study also notes a rise in unintentional injuries and poisonings, mostly drug overdoses, as well as accidents and suicides.

The concept of “deaths of despair” is crucial in understanding this trend. These deaths, often linked with economic hardship, depression, and stress, include suicide, drug use disorders, and alcoholic liver disease.

Yan points out that while both men and women have experienced increased death rates from drug overdoses and homicides, men constitute a disproportionately larger share of these deaths.

“While rates of death from drug overdose and homicide have climbed for both men and women, it is clear that men constitute an increasingly disproportionate share of these deaths,” Yan said.

Prior contributors to life expectancy gap

The study utilized data from the National Center for Health Statistics to identify the leading causes of death impacting life expectancy. The analysis compared the effects on both men and women to discern the differential impact on the gender gap.

Before the pandemic, the major contributing factors included unintentional injuries, diabetes, suicide, homicide, and heart disease.

However, the pandemic shifted the focus, with men being more adversely affected due to various factors. These include health behaviors and social determinants like work exposure risk, medical care reluctance, incarceration, and housing instability.

Implications and future directions

This revelation raises crucial questions about the need for more specialized care, particularly in mental health, for men to address this growing disparity in life expectancy. Yan emphasizes the importance of future research to focus public health interventions towards reversing this trend.

“We have brought insights to a worrisome trend,” Yan said. “Future research ought to help focus public health interventions towards helping reverse this decline in life expectancy.”

The senior co-author of the study is Howard Koh, MD, MPH, a professor at Harvard Chan School. Koh also underscores the need for continued monitoring of these trends post-2021. He advocates for significant investments in prevention and care to prevent these disparities from becoming entrenched.

“We need to track these trends closely as the pandemic recedes,” Koh said. “And we must make significant investments in prevention and care to ensure that this widening disparity, among many others, do not become entrenched.”

In summary, this study sheds light on a critical public health issue, revealing the widening life expectancy gap between men and women in the U.S. and underscoring the need for targeted interventions and policy changes.

As the world moves beyond the pandemic era, it becomes increasingly vital to address these disparities and work towards equitable health outcomes for all.

The full study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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