The Male-Female Longevity Gap Widens

Men’s lower life expectancy fueled by COVID-19, overdoses

Male and female icons on a green background

During the COVID pandemic, the lifespan gap between men and women grew. | GRAPHIC BY NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE

Through 2021, COVID-19, drug overdoses, and suicides were killing Americans faster than advances in healthcare were saving them. A new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and UC San Francisco, published November 13, finds that the average American was projected to live about three fewer years in 2021 than in 2019. During that period, the life expectancy gap between men and women grew—men are now estimated to die almost six years earlier than women.

The study sought to quantify the longevity gap by gender and identify the differences in causes of death. The researchers found that between 2019 and 2021, the life expectancy gap between men and women grew much more dramatically (total increase of 0.70 years) than it had in the previous decade (total increase of 0.23 years). “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,” said Brandon Yan, a research collaborator at the Harvard Chan School who led the study. Two other Harvard faculty members contributed to the report: senior author and professor of the practice of public health leadership Howard Koh, and senior lecturer on social and behavioral sciences Allan Geller.

COVID-19 was the primary factor fueling the recent increase in the gender lifespan gap. The researchers suggest that men had a “higher burden of comorbidities,” sought medical care more reluctantly, and spent more time in environments where they were susceptible to disease (work, jail, and homeless shelters).

In the past, much of the gender gap has stemmed from tobacco use, which is more prevalent in men than in women. Now, other kinds of substance abuse are killing men, too. The researchers found that “deaths from despair”—alcoholism, overdose, and suicide—are another factor disproportionately affecting men.

The researchers hope that by identifying gendered causes of death, they may be able to drive improvements in healthcare. Their results suggest that men in particular could benefit from additional mental health and substance abuse care. “We have brought insights to a worrisome trend,” Yan said. “Future research ought to help focus public health interventions towards helping reverse this decline in life expectancy.”

COVID-related deaths were still at high levels when the study’s dataset ended in 2021. In the future, the researchers want to assess the gap again as pandemic deaths wane. “We need to track these trends closely as the pandemic recedes,” said Koh. “And we must make significant investments in prevention and care to ensure that this widening disparity, among many others, does not become entrenched.”


UPDATED November 17, 2:45 P.M.: In 2021, the average American man was projected to live 73.2 years and the average woman 79.0 years.

Read more articles by Max J. Krupnick

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