Lesbian and bisexual women likely to die earlier than straight women

Lesbian and bisexual women are more likely to die earlier than straight women, according to a new Harvard study, with researchers pointing to discrimination as the culprit.

Findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association show that compared to women who identified as heterosexual, those who identified as lesbiand or bisexual died 26 per cent sooner, with lesbian women dying 20 per cent sooner and bisexual women dying 37 per cent sooner. 

The alarming results highlight an urgent need to address disparities that are leading sexual minority women to worse health and premature mortality. 

Researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and collaborating institutions analysed data from the Nurses’ Health Study II, a cohort of over 100,000 female nurses, linking sexual orientation data with nearly 30 years of death records. 

Speaking to the study’s findings, lead author and postdoctoral research fellow Sarah McKetta said that LGBTQ people experience stigma, prejudice and discrimination that result in chronic stress and unhealthy coping mechanisms, which leads the population’s health to become more vulnerable. 

“The sexual orientation–related inequities in mortality highlight the urgent need to address preventable causes, particularly given the increasingly hostile policy climate for LGBTQ people in the U.S.,” McKetta said.

Given that the statistics show a particularly high premature mortality rate for bisexual women (37 per cent higher than heterosexual women), Brittany Charlton, senior author of the study and associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology explained this could be due to the population experiencing discrimination even from within the LGBTQ community. 

“Bisexual women face distinct stressors from outside, as well as within, the LGBTQ community that are rooted in biphobia,” Charlton said. “Additionally, bisexual people are often excluded from various communities because they’re assumed to be straight or gay based on their partner’s gender.”

Here in Australia, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics paints a similar struggle as 80.1 per cent of bisexual people experience a mental disorder at some point in their life, compared to roughly half (41.7 per cent) of heterosexual people. 

Data from a 2021 study found that bisexual women are at a higher risk than heterosexual and lesbian women for mental health problems due to the unique stressors they experience from their identity. And bisexual women report elevated alcohol and drug use compared to other sexual minority women, according to another study published in the National Library of Medicine.   

While the latest Harvard study’s results on the premature mortality of lesbain and bisexual women are “grim”, McKetta hopes that they lead to more support and change for the health and wellbeing of this population. 

“One of the things that I was worried about with this study is that the takeaway would be that it kills to be gay,” McKetta told US News. 

“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.”

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