Women's Journal

Women’s Life Expectancy Six Years Longer Than Men

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Key Insights from the Study

A recent investigation has disclosed a growing divergence in life expectancy between men and women in the United States, reaching its most significant point since 1996. This study attributes the increasing gap to various factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid overdose crisis. The disparity, which was least pronounced in 2010, has widened due to elevated male mortality rates from the pandemic, accidental injuries, drug overdoses, and suicides, highlighting the urgency for gender-specific healthcare strategies to mitigate this escalating disparity.

Crucial findings include:

  • In 2021, the life expectancy gap between American men and women expanded to 5.8 years, the most considerable since 1996.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic and rising deaths from unintentional injuries, predominantly drug overdoses, have significantly contributed to this trend.
  • Men have faced higher mortality rates during the pandemic, influenced by factors such as health behaviors, social risks, and chronic conditions.

The study, led by UC San Francisco and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was published on November 13, 2023, in JAMA Internal Medicine. It reveals that the life expectancy gap between American men and women has been widening for over a decade, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid overdose epidemic, among other factors. The pandemic, which disproportionately impacted men, was the primary contributor to the expanding gap from 2019-2021, followed by unintentional injuries and poisonings (mostly drug overdoses), accidents, and suicide.

Life expectancy in the U.S. declined to 76.1 years in 2021, down from 78.8 years in 2019 and 77 years in 2020. This reduction in American lifespan is partly attributed to “deaths of despair,” encompassing increases in deaths from causes like suicide, drug use disorders, and alcoholic liver disease, often linked with economic hardship, depression, and stress.

While death rates from drug overdose and homicide have risen for both genders, men increasingly represent a disproportionate share of these deaths. The study, using data from the National Center for Health Statistics, identified the death causes most significantly lowering life expectancy and estimated their effects on both genders to understand their contribution to the gap.

Before the pandemic, the largest contributors were unintentional injuries, diabetes, suicide, homicide, and heart disease. However, during the pandemic, men were more likely to die from the virus, likely due to differences in health behaviors, social factors like work exposure risk, reluctance to seek medical care, incarceration, housing instability, chronic metabolic disorders, mental illness, and gun violence.

The findings prompt questions about the need for more specialized care for men, particularly in mental health, to address the growing life expectancy disparity. Future research should focus on public health interventions to help reverse this decline in life expectancy. The study’s authors, including senior author Howard Koh, MD, MPH, professor at Harvard Chan School, emphasize the importance of closely tracking these trends post-pandemic and making significant investments in prevention and care to prevent this and other disparities from becoming entrenched.