Pandemic disparities influenced the gender life expectancy gap, study finds

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published November 16, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • In the US, gaps in gender-based life expectancy trends are widening. Across the board, life expectancy in the US is on the decline.

  • Research suggests that the gap is influenced by the pandemic and “deaths of despair,” such as deaths caused by substance use disorders or suicide.

Women have outlived men for over a century. Now, the United States gender life expectancy gap is widening.

Data on US life expectancy in 2021 showed that, on average, women lived 5.8 years longer than men; this is the widest gap since 1996. The narrowest gap was in 2010 when women lived 4.8 years longer than men.

The recent increase was influenced, among other factors, by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). The pandemic disproportionately impacted men, who were more likely than women to die from COVID-19, according to the research. This may result from multiple factors, including exposure at work and/or reluctance to seek medical care, according to a Harvard press release on the findings.[]

“‘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,’” Brandon Yan, a UCSF internal medicine resident physician and first author of the study, said in the press release.

In the press release, Howard Koh, MPH, Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and senior author of the study, also stressed the importance of tracking trends “‘closely as the pandemic recedes.’”

“‘[W]e must make significant investments in prevention and care to ensure that this widening disparity, among many others, do not become entrenched,’” Koh added.

Death by unintentional injury and poisoning (notably drug overdoses), accident, and suicide also impacted men more than women between 2019 and 2021. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, the gender life expectancy gap was most influenced by women having “lower cardiovascular and lung cancer death rates related largely to differences in smoking behavior,” according to the study.[]

Michael Olla, MD, a psychiatrist and the medical director of Valley Spring Recovery Center, a mental health and substance use recovery facility in Norwood, NJ, says that he notices that gender norms for men can encourage partaking in heavy drinking, which can come with severe health consequences.

“Plenty of cultures allow or encourage men to do different activities, such as heavy drinking, but discourage it in women,” Dr. Olla says. “In conservative cultures, men are also expected to be part of the [manual labor] workforce more than women, causing their health to deteriorate quickly.”

Regardless of gender, life expectancy is decreasing

Data shows that life expectancy in the US is decreasing across the board, regardless of gender. In 2021, the average life expectancy at birth was just over 76 years, decreasing from 77 years in 2020 to 78.8 years in 2019. 

Without separating by gender, recent deaths have been increasingly attributed to “‘deaths of despair,’” according to the press release. This refers to deaths resulting from suicide, alcoholic liver disease, substance use disorders, and other mental health–related complications.

The findings bring “‘insights to a worrisome trend,’” Yan said in the press release. He added that future research ought to steer “‘public health interventions towards helping reverse this decline in life expectancy.’”

What this means for you

Across the board, life expectancy in the US is decreasing, and gaps in gender-based life expectancy trends are widening, too. Research shows that the pandemic and “‘deaths of despair,’” such as those caused by substance use disorder or suicide, may be influencing trends.

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