Summary: A recent study reveals a concerning increase in the life expectancy gap between men and women in the United States, now at its widest since 1996. Contributing factors to this growing disparity include reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid overdose epidemic.
The gap, once at its smallest in 2010, has grown due to higher male mortality rates resulting from the pandemic, accidental injuries, drug overdoses, and suicides. This worrisome trend raises several concerns about the need for gender-specific healthcare interventions to counter this rising inequality.
- The gap in life expectancy between American men and women widened to 5.8 years in 2021, the largest disparity recorded since 1996.
- Including increased deaths from unintentional injuries, particularly due to drug overdoses, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major contributor to this trend.
- Men have experienced higher mortality rates during the pandemic, influenced by health behaviors, social risks, and chronic conditions.
We’ve known for over a century that women tend to outlive men. Yet, new research led by UC San Francisco and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows that in the United States, the gap has been expanding for more than ten years. The trend is being propelled by the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid overdose epidemic, among other factors.
According to a research paper published on Nov. 13, 2023, in JAMA Internal Medicine, the study revealed that the life expectancy difference between American men and women increased to 5.8 years in 2021, the largest gap since 1996. This marks an increase from 4.8 years in 2010, when the disparity was at its smallest in recent history.
The pandemic, which disproportionately impacted men, was the primary cause of the widened gap from 2019 to 2021, followed by unintentional injuries and poisoning, with most cases being attributed to drug overdoses, accidents, and suicides.
“A lot of research has been dedicated to 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 the paper’s lead author, Brandon Yan, MD, MPH, a UCSF internal medicine resident physician and research collaborator at Harvard Chan School.
Life expectancy in the U.S. dropped in 2021 to 76.1 years, after standing at 78.8 years in 2019 and 77 years in 2020.
The shortened lifespan of Americans has been partially linked to so-called “deaths of despair,” such as suicide, drug use disorders, and alcoholic liver disease, which are often connected to economic hardship, depression, and stress.
“While death rates from drug overdose and homicide have risen for both men and women, it is evident that men represent an increasingly disproportionate share of these deaths,” Yan stated.
Interventions to Reverse a Growing Trend
Utilizing data from the National Center for Health Statistics, Yan and fellow researchers from different parts of the country identified the leading causes of death that contributed the most to decreasing life expectancy. They then estimated the impact on men and women to understand how various causes affected the gap.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the primary contributors were unintentional injuries, diabetes, suicide, homicide, and heart disease.
However, during the pandemic, men were more likely to fall victim to the virus, influenced by various factors such as differences in health behaviors and social risks, including the risk of exposure at work, reluctance to seek medical care, incarceration, and housing instability. Chronic metabolic disorders, mental illness, and gun violence also played a role.
Yan emphasized that the results raise questions about whether specialized care for men, particularly in mental health, should be developed to address the growing disparity in life expectancy.
“We have exposed insights into a concerning trend,” Yan said. “Future research should contribute to focusing public health interventions aimed at reversing this decline in life expectancy.”
Yan and co-authors, which include senior author Howard Koh, MD, MPH, professor of the practice of public health leadership at Harvard Chan School, also noted that further analysis is needed to see if these trends have changed after 2021.
“We need to monitor these trends closely as the pandemic recedes,” Koh said. “And we must make substantial investments in prevention and care to ensure that this growing disparity, among many others, does not become entrenched.”
Authors: Additional authors are affiliated with the National Center for Health Statistics and the Boston University School of Public Health.
Funding: The study received no funding, and the authors have no conflicts of interest.
About this longevity research news
Author: Victoria Colliver
Contact: Victoria Colliver – UCSF
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News
Original Research: Closed access.
“Widening Gender Gap in Life Expectancy in the US, 2010-2021” by Brandon Yan et al. JAMA Internal Medicine
Widening Gender Gap in Life Expectancy in the US, 2010-2021
As life expectancy at birth in the US decreased for the second consecutive year, from 78.8 years (2019) to 77.0 years (2020) and 76.1 years (2021), the gap between women and men widened to 5.8 years, its largest since 1996, and an increase from a low of 4.8 years in 2010.
For more than a century, US women have outlived US men, attributable to lower cardiovascular and lung cancer death rates related largely to differences in smoking behavior.
This study systematically examines the contributions of COVID-19 and other underlying causes of death to the widened gender life expectancy gap from 2010 to 2021.