The life expectancy gap between women and men in the United States expanded to 5.8 years between 2010 and 2021, the biggest difference in longevity between the sexes in decades, according to a new report.
Researchers found that American women can expect to live around six years longer than men, citing disparities from COVID-19 and drug overdose deaths as some of the reasons driving the biggest gap since 1996.
The study, published Monday in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, examined how COVID-19 and other underlying causes of death widened the gap from 2010 to 2021.
While distinct cardiovascular and lung cancer death rates have long been prime explanations for why women outlive men in the U.S., researchers said other leading causes of death are responsible and that multiple factors are widening the gap.
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COVID-19 became the largest drivers for life expectancy gap
For U.S. men between 2010 and 2019, higher mortality rates for diabetes, heart disease, unintentional injuries, homicide and suicide were the main drivers for the life expectancy gap. Part of the gap was minimized by similar mortality rates between men and women from cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
But differences in mortality rates from COVID-19 became the leading reason the gap widened between men and women during the pandemic, which began in 2020.
In 2021, COVID-19 killed 131 per 100,000 U.S. men but only 82 per 100,000 U.S. women, the study said.
Researchers used a binary classification of gender and did not analyze overlap between other demographic subgroups and disease classifications.
Drug overdoses and other unintentional injuries also widened gap
Men were twice as likely to die due to unintentional injuries – primarily drug overdoses – than women in 2010 and are even more likely to in 2021, a 0.27 difference since 2019, according to the study.
“This analysis finds that COVID-19 and the drug-overdose epidemic were major contributors to the widening gender gap in life expectancy in recent years,” the study authors wrote.
Some factors partially stopped the gap from expanding wider including maternal deaths among women and a decline in cancer deaths among men, the study added. Higher rates of comorbidities, incarceration and homelessness among men as well as other health behaviors were cited as explanations for the gap.
American life expectancy fell over two and a half years since COVID
The overall life expectancy dropped over a year and a half down to 76.1 years in 2021, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
A June study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that over 50 countries have surpassed the U.S. in life expectancy since the 1930s. Research showed Northeastern and Western states experienced the fastest growth while south-central and Midwestern states saw the slowest growth.
The U.S. Census Bureau projects that women will continue to outlive men for the rest of the century, according to new population estimates.
Contributing: Adrianna Rodriguez