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Why Men Die Younger Than Women

New WHO report highlights the role of mental health in mortality.

Cookie Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Cookie Studio/Shutterstock

The World Health Organization has just published the World Health Statistics 2019 (WHO, 2019), this year highlighting differences between men and women. Based on their statistics, a boy born in 2019 will live for 69.8 years on average and a girl for 74.2 years.

Why does life expectancy differ by 4.4 years between men and women?

The WHO report highlights that there is not any single cause that accounts for this huge gender difference. Instead, there are a number of different causes that contribute to gender differences in mortality. The top three causes of death contributing to higher mortality in males than in females were heart disease, road injuries, and lung cancers.

Importantly, there were several causes of death that were related to psychological traits or mental health. For example, road injuries were responsible for a reduction in life expectancy of 0.47 years for men compared to women. This might at least partly be due to the fact that more men work in the transportation industry than women, but it might also be caused by the empirically well-supported finding that men are more likely to show aggressive and risky driving behavior than women. For example, a systematic analysis of previously published studies on gender differences in driving behavior (Mouloua et al., 2007) found that men are more likely than women to drive drunk, show aggressive behavior using the lights of their car, and react too late to traffic incidents.

Cirrhosis of the liver caused a reduction in life expectancy by 0.27 years in men compared to women. While cirrhosis of the liver is a physical illness and not a mental health issue, one of its leading causes is alcohol use disorder. Importantly, there is a pronounced gender difference in the prevalence of alcohol use disorders. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), roughly 16.1 million individuals in the U.S. suffer from alcohol use disorder. There is a 2:1 ratio for men compared to women, with 9.8 million men and 5.3 million women affected in the U.S.

Research shows that several factors contribute to the gender difference in the prevalence of alcohol use disorder. These include socialization into traditional masculine gender roles that highlight the ability to drink large quantities of alcohol as something positive, later maturation of certain brain areas during development, a lower physical response to alcohol than in females, and greater estimates of the perceived alcohol use of friends (Schulte et al., 2009).

Interpersonal violence caused a reduction in life expectancy by 0.21 years in men compared to women. According to the WHO report, men are four times more likely to die from murder than women. About every fifth murder is committed by the partner or a family member of the victim. Here, women are more likely to be victims. However, in street crime, such as gang-related violence, men are much more likely to kill other men. This is likely related to higher levels of physical aggression and violence in men compared to women (Sturmey and Copping, 2017).

The last major factor that, according to the WHO, contributed to sex differences in mortality was self-harm. Overall, the rate of men dying from suicide was 1.75 higher than that of women. While women have more suicidal thoughts and try to commit suicide more often than men, men are actually killing themselves more often than women—a fact that has been called the suicide gender paradox (Canetto & Sakinofsky, 1998). While the exact reasons for the huge gender gap in suicide rates are not fully understood, one of the key factors identified by psychiatric research is the fact that traditional masculine gender roles promote coping strategies for psychosocial stress that are highly maladaptive. These include not expressing negative emotions, not seeking professional help for suicidal thoughts or depression, and self-medication with alcohol (Möller-Leimkühler, 2003).

Taken together, the results of the World Health Statistics 2019 highlight the importance of proper mental health care for both men and women. While physical illnesses such as cardiac disorders are the leading causes of gender differences in mortality, mental health issues also lead to a significant burden of medical consequences and reduced life expectancy in males. Therefore, strategies to support men to seek professional help for mental health issues should be promoted and advanced.

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Canetto SS, Sakinofsky I. (1998). The gender paradox in suicide. Suicide Life Threat Behav, 28, 1-23.

Möller-Leimkühler AM. (2003). The gender gap in suicide and premature death or: why are men so vulnerable? Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci, 253, 1-8.

Mouloua, M., Brill, J. C., & Shirkey, E. (2007). Gender Differences and Aggressive Driving Behavior: A Factor Analytic Study. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 51, 1283–1286.

Schulte MT, Ramo D, Brown SA. (2009). Gender differences in factors influencing alcohol use and drinking progression among adolescents. Clin Psychol Rev, 29, 535-547.

Sturmey, P. and Copping, L. (2017). Gender Differences in Violence and Aggression. In The Wiley Handbook of Violence and Aggression, P. Sturmey (Ed.).