The difference between the life expectancies of men and women increases in the USA, at the same time as it decreases in Europe. What could be behind this? If we observe people in a nursing home or in a group of elderly friends, it is possible to notice an imbalance between genders. Men are rare in the age group over 85. Conventional wisdom says they die earlier than women – and the numbers prove it.
In 2022 in Germany, for example, men had a life expectancy of 78 years, while women had a life expectancy of 82.8 years.
In the United States, the average life expectancy for women was 79 years old in 2021, while for men it was just over 73 years old. The difference of 5.8 years is the largest recorded since 1996.
In a recent study, American researchers attribute this difference to several external factors, the biggest of which is the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the research, published in the American Medical Association journal Jama Internal Medicine in November 2023, the authors say the pandemic has disproportionately affected men in the US and contributed to decreasing their average life expectancy.
Another factor was what American doctors call “deaths of despair”, such as lives shortened by suicide, addiction or violent crime, for example.
“While the rates of drug overdose deaths and homicides have increased for both men and women, it is incredible that men still make up an increasingly disproportionate share of these deaths,” says Brandon Yan, a researcher who led the study.
Risky jobs and heart disease are also reasons for premature deaths among men. But there are still other causes that generate the difference in life expectancy between genders.
Rheumatologist Robert H. Shmerling, academic editor at Harvard Health Publishing, mentions that men, in general, are more likely to avoid health check-ups, in addition to working in much greater numbers in risky jobs, such as firefighters and military fighters.
Shmerling also highlights the fact that men commit suicide more often than women. One potential reason for this could be the stigma that still lingers in the field of mental health in many cultures, especially towards men.
Another fundamental factor, according to doctors, is heart disease. In the US, men are 50% more likely to die from heart problems than women.
Difference is smaller in Europe
Outside the US, however, the lower incidence of cardiovascular disease in men is the main reason the difference in life expectancy between the two sexes is narrowing.
A team from Germany’s Federal Institute for Population Research analyzed life expectancies in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Slovakia, Switzerland and Germany. The conclusion is that the difference in mortality between genders has decreased.
The results, published in the European Journal of Public Health in July 2023, demonstrate that the approximation of life expectancies for both sexes is “mostly driven by a reduction in excess mortality from cardiovascular diseases and neoplasms [tumores malignos e outros tipos de câncer]”.
Between 1996 and 2019, the difference in mortality decreased in the seven countries where the study was carried out, and in most of them this was primarily due to a reduction in cardiovascular diseases among men. In France, a fundamental factor was the reduction in the incidence of cancer among men.
The study, however, did not just bring good news. In the Czech Republic, the difference between how long men and women live has narrowed because fewer men die from lung cancer, while the disease kills an increasing number of women.
Deutsche Welle is Germany’s international broadcaster and produces independent journalism in 30 languages.