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Life expectancy declined in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for men. VICTOR TORRES/Stocksy
  • An analysis of data shows that the life expectancy gap between men and women has widened to nearly 6 years, from a low of 4.8 years in 2010.
  • Researchers said the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the gap and also caused overall life expectancy to fall by 2.5 years.
  • A number of factors are also likely contributors, including socioeconomic status, risky behaviors, and the fact that men are more likely to die from COVID-19.
  • Researchers pointed to crises such as overdose deaths, homicide, and suicide as causes for concern.

It’s common knowledge that women tend to live longer than men, but according to new data from the National Center for Health Statistics, this gap has widened significantly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An analysis submitted this week to the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine shows that women in the United States now live an average of 5.8 years longer than men, marking the biggest gap between men and women since 1996.

For comparison, the gap reached a low of 4.8 years in 2010.

Experts interviewed by Medical News Today say that while the pandemic may have exacerbated the life expectancy gap, there are many other reasons why women typically live longer than men.

The widening age gap is just one demographic trend affected by the pandemic.

The study authors also noted that overall life expectancy has fallen by more 2 years on average since 2021.

“We expected to see life expectancy worsen due to the opioid epidemic because life expectancy had previously fallen in the U.S. for this reason from 2015 to 2017,” said Dr. Brandon Yan, a study author and resident physician at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine and a research collaborator at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “But then overall life expectancy started to improve again in 2018 and 2019.”

The COVID-19 pandemic struck immediately after this rise in life expectancy, which predictably caused life expectancy to lower once again.

Yan told Medical News Today that while this drop was expected, he and his colleagues were surprised by the disparity between men and women.

“We were also very concerned to see drug overdose deaths continue to rise and increasingly so for men over the course of the pandemic,” he said.

Yan noted that the life expectancy gap grew for much of the 20th century primarily due to the fact that men were more likely than women to be smokers. This time around, however, the explanation isn’t as straightforward.

“The cause of the widening disparity is multifactorial, which is to say we are dealing with multiple epidemics at once – COVID-19, drug overdose, and mental illness,” he said.

There isn’t a single answer that explains conclusively why women outlive men, but a multitude of factors help shed some light on the disparity.

Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, told Medical News Today that while some of the effect is biological, much of it is behavioral.

“While the biological factors like estrogen, the female immune system, and other genetic factors cannot be easily adapted by men, many of the behavior differences could add years to the lives of men,” said Cutler, who was not involved in the study.

Cutler pointed out that, in general, men are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking, excessive drinking, and participating in dangerous sports or occupations.

To add to this, men are less likely to seek medical intervention.

“Women are generally more likely to engage in health-seeking behaviors,” Cutler explained. “They often visit healthcare professionals regularly, adhere to medical advice, and participate in preventive healthcare measures. This proactive approach to health may contribute to early detection of diseases and better management of health conditions to avoid premature illness and death.”

One of the simplest reasons for the widening life expectancy gap since the pandemic is, on the surface, pretty straightforward: men were more likely to die from COVID-19.

“It is unclear the extent to which this was due to immunologic differences, vaccination rates, mask wearing, environmental exposure, or underlying medical conditions,” said Cutler. “But certainly, taking additional measures to avoid COVID infection and serious illness would narrow the gap.”

But understanding why men are more likely than women to die from COVID-19 is a little more complicated.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly brought attention to the existing health inequities in our society,” explained Dr. Kelvin Fernandez, a resident physician at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in New Jersey who was not involved in the study. “I’ve observed that men’s health often takes a backseat due to societal pressures and perceptions.”

Socioeconomic status plays a major role with health in general and this was especially true during the peaks of the pandemic.

“It’s important to consider the role played by social determinants of health, such as income, educations, and occupation. Lower socioeconomic status is often associated with limited access to quality healthcare services, leading to reduced life expectancy,” Fernandez told Medical News Today. “This is evident in the higher mortality rates among men working in physically demanding jobs with limited healthcare access. These pandemic-related stresses may have further impacted the already expanding life expectancy gap between men and women.”

It’s important to point out that while demographic trends can be helpful, they’re too broad to be applied to every individual person. In other words, the fact that women overall live longer than men is no guarantee that a specific woman will outlive a specific man.

“Societal changes and evolving gender roles may influence these behavioral patterns over time,” said Cutler. “Additionally, individual variations are significant, and not all men or women conform to these general trends. The complex interplay of biology, physiology, and social factors contributes to the observed differences in life expectancy between men and women.”

Yan concluded by underlining the importance of staying healthy.

“Stay up to date on vaccinations, eat a healthy diet, and find small ways to remain active in your daily activities, which doesn’t necessarily require a gym membership,” he advised. “Make the effort to maintain relationships and social connections with others, because research shows this is associated with longevity.”