Widening Gender Gap in Life Expectancy in the U.S.: Unraveling the Impact of Pandemics and Social Factors


Despite significant strides in various fields, the achievement of true gender equality remains an elusive goal, with women’s rights still lagging on a global scale. Gender equality is not merely a social or moral issue; it is recognized by the United Nations as both a human rights imperative and a vital indicator for sustainable, people-centered development.

The complexities of gender equality go beyond mere parity, delving into the consideration of diverse needs, interests, and priorities of both women and men. It’s about acknowledging and dismantling the barriers that restrict opportunities based on gender.

Life expectancy at birth, a crucial indicator of overall population health, reflects the intricate interplay of biological, behavioral, and environmental determinants. This includes factors such as working and living conditions, exposure to pollution, access to healthcare, education, income, and social support.

Unsurprisingly, many of these determinants exhibit a gendered impact, contributing to the persistent gender gap in life expectancy. Recognizing this, it becomes essential to investigate the relationship between gender equality policies and the gender gap in life expectancy, as these policies extend across various sectors such as the economy, education, and social welfare.

Summary of Research Findings: Exploring the Association Between Gender Equality and Life Expectancy

Our first case study conducted an in-depth analysis of the modified Global Gender Gap Index (mGGGI) between 2010 and 2021, revealing a significant 4% improvement from 58% to 62%. Notably, this improvement was predominantly propelled by advancements in the political and economic subindexes, while the education subindex remained relatively stable.

On a global scale, changes in the mGGGI and its economic and political subindexes did not correlate with alterations in the gender gap in Life Expectancy (LE) or LE for both women and men from 2010 to 2020. Surprisingly, improvements in gender equality in education were linked to a longer LE for both genders and a widening gender gap in LE, driven by a more substantial increase in LE for women compared to men.

In 2021, a noteworthy observation was made: a 10% increase in the mGGGI corresponded to a significant 4.3-month increase in women’s LE and a 3.5-month increase in men’s LE, resulting in an 8-month wider gender gap in LE. However, the direction and magnitude of these associations varied across world regions. High-income countries (HIC) experienced a narrowing gender gap in LE by approximately 6 months for every 10% increase in the mGGGI. In contrast, South and Southeast Asia and Oceania, as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, witnessed a widening gender gap in LE by 13 and 16 months, respectively.

Associations also extended to specific regions, with gender equality in education showing the strongest link to LE for women, while the political subindex exhibited the weakest association.

This first case study, the first of its kind, explored the connection between the mGGGI and the gender gap in LE, aligning with a prior study on the United Nations Gender Inequality Index. The research methodically split countries into regions based on geography and socioeconomic development, revealing that greater gender equality is overall linked to a narrower gender gap in LE in HIC, primarily comprising European and North American countries.

In contrast to previous research, this study found associations between greater gender equality and a wider gender gap in LE not only in Sub-Saharan Africa but also in South and Southeast Asia and Oceania. This discrepancy may be attributed to the nuanced approach of categorizing countries into regions based on both geography and socioeconomic development.

The study’s implications for global policymakers are significant, particularly in the aftermath of the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings underscore the vital role of gender equality in improving LE, particularly for women in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). The study advocates for addressing persisting gender inequalities to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality.

Furthermore, the study highlights the evolving benefits of gender equality, initially benefiting women and later extending to men. It emphasizes the importance of investing in education, especially in LMIC, where gender disparities in primary education persist. The economic domain’s association underscores the need to address the gender pay gap and enhance women’s participation in the labor market.

Lastly, the study raises concerns about tokenistic approaches to gender equality in politics, emphasizing the need for genuine empowerment and representation of women. Despite its strengths in including a large number of countries and utilizing reliable data, the study acknowledges limitations such as incomplete global data coverage and potential confounders affecting observed associations.

Evolution of the Gender Gap in Life Expectancy

Historically, women have consistently outlived men across the globe. However, the gender gap in life expectancy has not remained static, evolving significantly over the years. From 1950 to 2012, the gap widened from 4.5 to 5.4 years before showing a slight reduction to 5.1 years by 2019.

Regional variations further complicate this narrative, with central and eastern Europe experiencing an 8.6-year gap compared to 3.2 years in North Africa and the Middle East. While biological factors, including sex hormones, play a role in the disparity, their exclusive influence cannot explain the observed variations over time and across regions.

Demographic analyses reveal a shifting pattern in the drivers of the gender gap. Before 1950, excess mortality among baby boys primarily influenced the gap, while after 1950, elevated mortality among men over 60 became a significant factor. This shift suggests that the conditions in which both genders live, shaped by factors influenced by gender equality, contribute to the observed variations in the gender gap in life expectancy.

Gender Equality and Its Measurement

Previous studies have explored the association between gender equality and the gender gap in life expectancy, revealing intriguing regional variations. In Europe and the Americas, higher gender equality is linked with a wider gap in life expectancy, while in Africa, gender equality appears associated with a narrower gap. However, these studies relied on specific indices like the United Nations Gender Inequality Index and the European Union Gender Equality Index, each with its unique domains.

The World Economic Forum’s Comprehensive Index

In this study, we aim to fill a gap in research by utilizing the comprehensive index developed by the World Economic Forum to measure gender equality. Unlike previous indices, the World Economic Forum’s index considers a broader spectrum of factors influencing gender equality. It assesses various domains, including reproductive health, empowerment, and labor market participation. By adopting this index, we hope to provide a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between gender equality and the gender gap in life expectancy on a global scale.

For over a century, it has been a recognized fact that women tend to outlive men. However, recent research led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and UC San Francisco reveals that this longevity gap has been steadily widening in the United States over the past decade.

A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine on November 13, 2023 points to the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid overdose epidemic as significant contributors to this alarming trend.

Key Findings: The research highlights a concerning increase in the gender life expectancy gap, reaching 5.8 years in 2021, the widest since 1996. This represents a substantial rise from 4.8 years in 2010, the period when the gap was at its smallest. The study identifies the primary drivers of this trend, with the COVID-19 pandemic emerging as the leading factor from 2019 to 2021. Other contributors include unintentional injuries and poisonings (mainly drug overdoses), accidents, and suicides.

Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic: The disproportionate toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on men significantly contributed to the widening gender gap. Factors such as differences in health behaviors, social dynamics influencing workplace exposure risk, reluctance to seek medical care, incarceration, and housing instability all played roles in this gender disparity. Chronic metabolic disorders, mental illness, and gun violence further exacerbated the impact on men.

Deaths of Despair: The study links the overall shortening of American lifespan to the phenomenon known as “deaths of despair.” This term encapsulates the rise in deaths from suicide, drug use disorders, and alcoholic liver disease—conditions often associated with economic hardship, depression, and stress. While these rates have increased for both genders, men are increasingly overrepresented in these statistics.

Evolution of Leading Causes of Death: Before the pandemic, unintentional injuries, diabetes, suicide, homicide, and heart disease were the primary contributors to declining life expectancy. However, during the pandemic, COVID-19 emerged as a leading cause of death for men. The study suggests that the shift in these leading causes emphasizes the need for a nuanced approach in public health interventions.

Implications for Men’s Health Care: The study raises questions about whether a more specialized approach to men’s health care, particularly in mental health, is warranted to address the growing disparity in life expectancy. The researchers emphasize the importance of future investigations to guide public health interventions aimed at reversing the decline in life expectancy among men.

Call for Further Analysis and Intervention: The authors, including first author Brandon Yan and senior author Howard Koh, stress the necessity for ongoing analysis beyond 2021 to assess if these trends persist or evolve. They also underscore the importance of substantial investments in prevention and care to prevent the entrenchment of this widening disparity in life expectancy.

Conclusion: The widening gender gap in life expectancy in the United States, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and deaths of despair, underscores the urgency for targeted public health interventions. As we navigate the aftermath of the pandemic, tracking these trends closely and investing in prevention and care are crucial to ensuring that disparities in life expectancy, particularly among men, do not become entrenched in society.

reference link: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2811338



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