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Life Expectancy Gap Between Men and Women Largest in Nearly 30 Years, Harvard-UCSF Study Finds

The gender gap in overall life expectancy has widened to its largest in 30 years, according to a Harvard School of Public Health and University of California, San Francisco study released this month.
The gender gap in overall life expectancy has widened to its largest in 30 years, according to a Harvard School of Public Health and University of California, San Francisco study released this month. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

American men die nearly six years earlier than American women on average, according to a new Harvard School of Public Health and University of California, San Francisco study released earlier this month.

The report found that overall life expectancy in the United States has continued to drop as the gap between men and women grew to the largest it has been in nearly 30 years. Researchers pointed to the Covid-19 pandemic and the opioid overdose epidemic as the factors behind the widening gap.

Alan C. Geller — a senior lecturer on social and behavioral sciences at HSPH and one of the study’s co-authors — said since right before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the life expectancy gap between men and women began to grow increasingly large.

“Over just a three-year period — so from 2019 to 2021 — it increased by 0.70 years,” Geller said. “When doing the math, you can see that in three years the gender life expectancy gap increased threefold compared to the 10 years prior, from 2010 to 2019.”

Geller said two main factors drove the gap to widen between 2019 and 2021.

“Covid became the leading contributor to the widening gender life expectancy and second was unintentional injuries, mainly drug overdoses,” Geller said.

The study found diabetes and heart disease, as well as “deaths of despair” — which includes deaths related to suicide, drug use disorders, and alcoholism — added to the difference in life expectancy between men and women.

The researchers gathered data for their analysis by examining death certificates from 2010 to 2021.

“The methodology for this study was having access to a terrific database from the National Center for Health Statistics,” Geller said. “That’s the repository that we have as citizens or as researchers to examine trends over time in deaths for any kind of disease going back many, many years.”

Geller said he predicts that the life expectancy trends will likely continue unless specific action is taken to tackle the drug epidemic.

“It appears that men are more likely to be using harder drugs and are tragically suffering the ramifications of it,” he said.

Geller said that “unless something dramatically changes” and better policies are adopted to better treat people suffering from opioid addiction, he does not think that the situation will improve.

“I’m not particularly optimistic about the drug overdose story,” he added.

Deaths related to the Covid-19 pandemic will also continue to widen the life expectancy gap between men and women, according to Geller.

“One would have to surmise — even though the number of deaths is going down — that there’s going to continue to be this differential by gender,” he said. “Although it’s really hard to track infections, our sense is that there’s been more Covid-19 infections in men compared to women.”

To reduce the number of deaths, Geller highlighted the need for preventative strategies.

“For all of these things, we have to get back to the source,” Geller said. “Why do we see greater infections? Why do we see greater overdosing?”

“The main message we want to convey is the need for a prevention strategy — both for fewer guns, fewer drugs being on the street, and, at least, greater access to vaccines,” he added.

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