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Men die nearly 6 years before women, as US life expectancy gap widens

BOSTON MA. APRIL 7: Harvard School of Public Health on April 7, 2020 in Boston, MA. (Staff Photo By Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
BOSTON MA. APRIL 7: Harvard School of Public Health on April 7, 2020 in Boston, MA. (Staff Photo By Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

The life expectancy of American women is now 5.8 years longer than that of men, a trend that researchers say is driven by the COVID pandemic and the opioid overdose epidemic.

U.S. men dying nearly 6 years before women is now the largest life expectancy gap between sexes since 1996, according to new research led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and UC San Francisco.

The life expectancy gender gap of 5.8 years in 2021 was a jump from 4.8 years in 2010, when the gap was at its smallest in recent history.

The pandemic, which took a disproportionate toll on men, was the biggest contributor to the widening gap from 2019 to 2021 — followed by unintentional injuries and poisonings (mostly drug overdoses), 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,” said first author Brandon Yan, 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 — falling from 78.8 years in 2019, and 77 years in 2020.

The shortening lifespan of Americans has been attributed in part to so-called “deaths of despair.” The term refers to the increase in deaths from such causes as suicide, drug use disorders, and alcoholic liver disease, which are often connected with economic hardship, depression, and stress.

“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.

Using data from the National Center for Health Statistics, Yan and fellow researchers from around the country identified the causes of death that were lowering life expectancy the most. Then, they estimated the effects on men and women to see how much different causes were contributing to the gap.

Before the COVID pandemic, the largest contributors were unintentional injuries, diabetes, suicide, homicide, and heart disease.

But during the pandemic, men were more likely to die of the virus. That was likely due to a number of reasons — including differences in health behaviors, as well as social factors, such as the risk of exposure at work, reluctance to seek medical care, incarceration, and housing instability.

“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.”