The gap in life expectancy between men and women in the United States has reached its widest point in over 25 years. Women in the U.S. are now living nearly six years longer on average than men, with COVID-19, and drug overdoses being major contributors to this difference, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics published this month in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
Historically, American men have had shorter lifespans compared to women, primarily due to factors like heart disease and lung cancer. However, this gap has been steadily decreasing since 1979 when it was almost eight years, reaching a low of 4.8 years in 2010. By 2021, the gap had expanded to 5.8 years, with women expected to live an average of 79.3 years and men 73.5 years.
The primary drivers of this widening gap are COVID-19 and drug overdoses. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected men, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the difference in life expectancy between genders.
Also, Men are more likely to have comorbidities that increase their risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.
Additionally, factors such as homelessness and incarceration, which are more prevalent among men, have also contributed to higher COVID-19 mortality.
Drug overdoses, often linked to the broader issue of deaths from despair, play a significant role in this trend, contributing to about one-third of the gap. Mental health challenges, socioeconomic changes, and risky behaviors, such as drug use and violence, are interconnected factors contributing to this crisis.
Despite these concerning trends, advances in cancer treatment and prevention have helped mitigate the widening of the life expectancy gap. Reduced smoking rates, more common among men historically, have also played a role in maintaining the current gap.
However, there has been an increase in deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth, potentially influenced by COVID-19, which may have discouraged pregnant women from seeking timely medical care due to fears of exposure to the virus.
The study’s findings serve as an alert, especially for men, to prioritize their health and well-being. It highlights the importance of adopting healthier lifestyles, seeking medical care when needed, and addressing the societal factors that contribute to deaths from despair, such as drug overdoses, suicides, and homicides. Public health efforts need to focus on prevention, and there are opportunities to reduce preventable deaths through vaccination, better management of chronic conditions, and interventions to improve mental health and well-being.