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The Concerning Trend in Men’s Health

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Catching Up with Califf Main Image includes photo of Dr. Califf

By: Robert M. Califf, MD, Commissioner of Food and Drugs

During my career as an academic researcher, physician, and public health official, I’ve tried to bring attention to a startling paradox: despite unprecedented technological advances that have saved lives globally, and despite spending more on healthcare than any other nation on earth, life expectancy in the U.S. is trending downward. This concerning development, which runs counter to multiple previous decades of improvements in life expectancy, started even before the COVID-19 pandemic. But if we take a closer look at the data, it’s clear that one group in particular is falling behind—men. Let’s catch up on this. 

The point was exemplified by my recent 55th high school reunion—yes, that’s right—55th. In a class of around 800 students, we have lost at least 80 classmates. The ratio of male to female deaths is 3 to 1 and of course, I have a biased eye, but the toll of chronic disease seemed much more severe in my male classmates.

June is Men’s Health Month, and unfortunately, the data support my observation, showing that men are experiencing poor health outcomes at an alarming rate. In the U.S., according to the National Center for Health Statistics, life expectancy for American men in 2022 was 74.8 years versus 80.2 for women—a difference of 5.4 years. Health inequity is further widened among men, as Black men, Indigenous men, and men living in rural communities have the lowest life expectancy among all groups.

The declining health of men is also a global phenomenon. Recently released data by the Global Burden of Disease team show that men’s life expectancy averages 6.5 years less than that of women around the world. When looking at global differences in years of life lost, they found that men lose 40% more years of life compared with women, totaling 330 million years annually. 

Chronic diseases are the major culprit causing this great divide in life expectancy. In the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men are more likely than women to die of cancer and chronic diseases of the heart, blood vessels, lungs, kidneys, and liver. Although chronic conditions are driving the greatest absolute contributions to greater premature deaths among men, data show that men are also much more likely than women to die from COVID- 19, opioid overdose, alcohol use, suicide, accidents, guns, and assault. 

I hope that highlighting men’s poor health outcomes will not be seen as being in competition with the pressing need to continue working to understand and improve the health of women. Men’s poor health also has a significant economic fallout that affects all of society, and communities already experiencing poverty are among the hardest hit by the growing absence of men from the workforce. Reports indicate that a smaller proportion of men are working in the U.S. today than ever before. A major reason why fewer men are working today is poor health: according to the Current Population Survey, 26% of men of prime working age reported being unable to work because of sickness, compared to 18% of women. 

It is hard to overstate the ramifications our society will face if these trends continue to worsen. If we are to effectively address the decline in men’s life expectancy, we must recognize that men are in the midst of a trend of physical and mental health that affects everyone in our country. In a future blog, I will explore the factors that may be contributing to this widening gap. 

Catch up with you next time.

 

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