Lesbian, Bisexual Women More Likely to Die Early Than Straight Peers

Lesbian, Bisexual Women More Likely to Die Early Than Straight Peers
Adobe Stock

MONDAY, May 13, 2024 (HealthDay news) -- Could being a lesbian or bisexual shorten your life? New research that analyzed decades of data on women suggests it might.

What's driving the trend? Researchers point to discrimination as the primary culprit.

While there is a large body of research looking at how LGBTQ people experience mental health issues and chronic disease at higher rates, how these outcomes affect death rates has been less studied, the researchers said.

The findings, published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association, focused on data from the Nurses’ Health Study II, which was started in 1989 to track risk factors for chronic diseases in women.

Compared to women who identified as heterosexual, those who identified as lesbian or bisexual died 26% sooner, with lesbian women dying 20% sooner and bisexual women dying 37% sooner, the study found.

“One of the advantages of this study is that we were able to separate out bisexual and lesbian participants, because we had enough people and we followed them for long enough that we can actually look at those risks separately, which no other U.S. study has been able to do,” study author Sarah McKetta, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, told NBC News.

Although the investigators expected to see disparities, McKetta said they didn’t expect to see such stark differences in mortality rates.  

“We’ve known for a really long time that there are systemic and highly reproducible health disparities for LGB people, particularly LGB women, across many outcomes,” McKetta said. “We’ve seen disparities in tobacco use and alcohol use, in mental health, in chronic disease. Basically, pretty much any outcome that we’ve looked at across multiple surveys, we see that lesbian, gay and bisexual women are at higher risk."

"And we also know it’s due to levels of discrimination, ranging from structural to individual," she added. "The thing is, we actually don’t really know to what extent these disparities manifest in premature mortality differences, because there’s some real data limitations. This was an opportunity for us to actually quantify the magnitude of that disparity.”

Using information gathered on the women 20 years prior -- which revealed a twofold prevalence of alcohol and tobacco use, as well as higher risks for breast cancer, cardiovascular disease and depression among lesbian and bisexual participants -- McKetta concluded these disparities were largely attributed to preventable causes. 

From interactions in health care settings to workplaces and private spaces, “toxic social exposures,” as she called them, translate into damaging behaviors and negative mental and physical health outcomes. And this is especially true for bisexual women.

“If this isn’t research that you typically do, it can be really easy to think that because sexuality is a spectrum, that the risk kind of goes up as people get more exclusively lesbian, more exclusively gay. But actually, the healthcare risks are much more pronounced for bisexual folks,” McKetta explained. “They have these dual pressures given their identity, and they experience discrimination from both inside and outside of queer communities.”

While McKetta acknowledged the study portrays a “grim” reality, she hopes the findings will one day mean younger generations of lesbian and bisexual women won’t see the same kind of shortened lifespans as their predecessors did. 

“One of the things that I was worried about with this study is that the takeaway would be that it kills to be gay,” she said. “It doesn’t kill to be gay. It kills to be discriminated against. And that’s the lived experience of lesbian and gay women and bisexual women who are just trying to walk through the world.”

More information

Visit Johns Hopkins for more on lesbian health issues.

SOURCE: Journal of the American Medical Association, April 2024; NBC News

What This Means For You

Lesbian and bisexual women are more likely to die early, new research suggests.

Related Stories

No stories found.