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Women outlive men but face different health burdens, study finds

The health gap between men and women widened with age, leaving women with a greater burden of illness despite their longer lifespans

Women outlive men but face different health burdens, study finds
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

Men carry a heavier burden of illness overall, particularly those leading to early death, while women tend to live longer but still experience more chronic health issues throughout their lives, a recent study found. 

The study investigated health differences between men and women for the top 20 global illnesses—using data from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2021—and showed stark differences between men and women, starting from youth and widening with age. 

The findings were published in a Lancet Public Health article titled Differences across the lifespan between females and males in the top 20 causes of disease burden globally: a systematic analysis of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2021. 

“The timing is right for this study and call to action—not only because of where the evidence is now, but because COVID-19 has starkly reminded us that sex differences can profoundly impact health outcomes,” said senior author Dr. Luisa Sorio Flor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), University of Washington, USA.

“One key point the study highlights is how females and males differ in many biological and social factors that fluctuate and, sometimes, accumulate over time, resulting in them experiencing health and disease differently at each stage of life and across world regions. The challenge now is to design, implement, and evaluate sex- and gender-informed ways of preventing and treating the major causes of morbidity and premature mortality from an early age and across diverse populations,” the researcher added. 

Seven health issues disproportionately affected women compared to men such as low back pain, depression, headaches, anxiety, other musculoskeletal disorders, dementia, and HIV/AIDS, the study showed. 

Notably, most of these conditions ranked among the top ten leading causes of disease burden for women in 2021.

Among these conditions, anxiety disorders stood out as the most significant difference between women and men. Globally, women experienced anxiety disorders at a rate 64.8% higher than men, according to the study.

On the other hand, diseases that are most likely to cause premature death like covid-19, ischemic heart disease, lung cancer, and cirrhosis, affected men disproportionately.

The health gap between men and women widened with age, leaving women with a greater burden of illness despite their longer lifespans. 

This trend, coupled with aging populations worldwide, places immense strain on healthcare systems.

These findings underscored the urgent need for gender-specific healthcare approaches throughout a person’s life.  

“Historically, the focus on women’s health has been largely focused on sexual and reproductive concerns, which, although crucial, do not encompass the full spectrum of health issues affecting females throughout the life course,” the study said. 

Despite the significant health and economic burden they cause, non-communicable diseases that primarily affect females continue to be neglected. The study highlighted that this neglect is evident in limited research funding, a lack of representation in scientific literature, and most importantly, in healthcare systems themselves. 

The study also shared that just like the health issues disproportionately affecting women, those impacting men often have early roots. Road injuries and ischemic heart disease in men, for example, can be traced back to habits formed earlier in life. This underscored the importance of early intervention and preventative measures targeted at young people.

This could involve cross-sectoral collaborations with social and educational sectors as well as promoting healthy and positive gender norms throughout education plays a crucial role in addressing risk factors like smoking and alcohol consumption, which are more prevalent among males globally.


Shireen Khan is a Senior Correspondent at Press Insider. She covers lifestyle, culture, and health. More

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