It’s been known that women tend to outlive men, but a new study shows that the gender-death gap is widening.
A research paper published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that U.S. men on average die nearly six years before women — the largest rift since 1996.
The difference increased to 5.8 years in 2021, which researchers say is a significant jump from the 4.8-year gap in 2010, when it was at its smallest in recent history.
“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,” first author Brandon Yan, a UCSF internal medicine resident physician and research collaborator at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a statement.
Yan and his team analyzed data from the National Center for Health Statistics to look at which causes of death were lowering life expectancy at the highest rates. They split the data into two, men and women, estimating the effects to identify how much different causes reinforce the gap.
Harvard researchers alongside those from the University of California, San Francisco found that the pandemic was the biggest factor in this gap, as the deadly disease disproportionately took a toll on men.
Men were more likely to die from COVID-19, likely due to both health behaviors and social factors, including chronic metabolic disorders, mental illness, gun violence, potential exposure at work, hesitation to seek out medical care, incarceration and housing instability.
Other main contributors to the widening gap from 2019 to 2021 include unintentional injuries and poisonings (mostly drug overdoses) accidents and suicide.
“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.
Prior to the pandemic, unintentional injuries, diabetes, suicide, homicide and heart disease were the main factors in expanding the life expectancy gap.
“We have brought insights to a worrisome trend,” Yan shared. “Future research ought to help focus public health interventions towards helping reverse this decline in life expectancy.”
“We need to track these trends closely as the pandemic recedes,” senior author Howard Koh said. “And we must make significant investments in prevention and care to ensure that this widening disparity, among many others, do not become entrenched.”
Life expectancy in the US in general dropped in 2021 to 76.1 years — a decrease from 78.8 years in 2019 and 77 years in 2020.
The fall in Americans’ lifespan has been partly attributed to “deaths of despair” — a rise in death due to causes such as suicide, drug use disorders and alcoholic liver disease — which are often linked to economic troubles, depression and stress.