The average life expectancy for women in the US is now nearly six years longer than that of men. According to new research, this gap increased from a low of 4.8 years in 2010 to 5.8 years in 2021, the largest it has been since 1996.
Overall, average life expectancy in the US has dropped in recent years. In 2019, it was 78.8 years, falling to 77 years in 2020, and then again to 76.1 years in 2021.
Females, on average, live longer than males. This is true of our own species, as well as others in the animal kingdom. Previous research attempting to explain the gap in life expectancy has suggested that it might have something to do with sex chromosomes. Biological females have two X chromosomes, while males have an X and a Y, putting them at greater risk of X-linked abnormalities. Loss of the Y chromosome as we age could also account for the trend.
Other explanations include heart disease risk, which may be mitigated by female hormones; size differences between the sexes; and differences in occupation, risk-taking, and willingness to see a doctor.
In the US, women have outlived men for more than a century, “attributable to lower cardiovascular and lung cancer death rates related largely to differences in smoking behavior,” the authors write in their study.
In their new research, the team found that the widening gap is now best explained by COVID-19 deaths, drug overdoses, and suicide. To come to these conclusions, they analyzed US National Center for Health Statistics death records from 2010 to 2021. However, it should be noted they only included binary gender classification, and so their findings do not take into account other genders beyond men and women.
“The gender life expectancy gap increased 0.23 years from 2010 to 2019 and 0.70 years from 2019 to 2021,” they write. In this latter period, “COVID-19 became the leading contributor to the widening gender life expectancy gap [...] followed by unintentional injuries.” This includes unintentional poisonings (mostly drug overdoses) and transport-related accidents.
Men, the researchers found, were more likely to die from COVID-19. They cite several possible reasons for this, “including higher burden of comorbidities and differences in health behaviors and socioeconomic factors, such as labor force participation, incarceration, and homelessness.”
Growing mortality from heart disease, diabetes, homicide, and suicide also implicate chronic metabolic disease and mental illness in the widening life expectancy gap, they add.
While you would expect deaths associated with COVID-19 to diminish after 2021, as the pandemic recedes, the contribution of these other, preventable factors, is cause for concern.
“The increase in overdose deaths, homicide, and suicide underscore twin crises of deaths from despair and firearm violence,” the authors conclude, which need to be addressed if we are to close the life expectancy gap.
“We need to track these trends closely as the pandemic recedes,” senior author Howard Koh said in a statement. “And we must make significant investments in prevention and care to ensure that this widening disparity, among many others, [does] not become entrenched.”
The study is published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
If you or someone you know is struggling, help and support are available in the US at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255. In the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. International helplines can be found at SuicideStop.com.include