Why do women live longer than men?

photo by Mitch Diatz - CC-BY

photo by Mitch Diatz - CC-BY

In just about every country, women live longer than men. According to the CIA World Factbook, women live 5 years longer in Australia and the UK, 6 years longer in the USA, seven years longer in Brazil and Japan, and a massive 14 years longer in Russia. A rare exception is Botswana, where men can expect to live on average 2 years longer than women.

The reasons are only partly understood, but according to Harvard University researchers there appear to be multiple factors.

Men are more likely to die in wars. Men are more likely to die in traffic accidents, and in industrial accidents. Men are more likely to murder and to be murdered. In particular, during their “testosterone storm” from 15 to 24 years old, males vastly outnumber females of similar age in deaths from road accidents, suicide, homicide, drownings and cancer. Again in later life (55-64 years), men are more likely than women to die of heart disease, suicide, car crashes, and illnesses related to drinking and smoking.

Men and women have different underlying body chemistry due to their sex hormones. The male’s testosterone raises levels of harmful cholesterol, which makes heart disease and stroke more likely. The female’s estrogen, on the other hand, lowers harmful cholesterol and raises good cholesterol.

Harvard’s researchers point out that evolution and the menopause come into this too. The older the mother, the more risk to life accompanies pregnancy. Were it not for the menopause, older women would die in large numbers due to complications of pregnancy. Evolution, too, needed to ensure that the mother was likely to be around to care for her offspring, so there was no benefit to the species by being able to bear children at too old an age. The same did not apply to the older males, because a child with a younger mother was likely to survive even if the older father had died.

The longevity gap between the sexes appears to be gradually reducing, in part due to improved medical care and in part due to lifestyle changes that see female rates of smoking and drinking moving closer to those of males. Smoking seems to be the “great equalizer” – one study found that middle-aged female smokers lived no longer than their male counterparts.

Mark Stibich, MD, suggests that men can improve their longevity by avoiding violence, controlling anger, driving safely, cutting down on drink/drugs, giving up tobacco, getting a medical checkup, seeking help whenever needed, listening to their doctor, filling their life with meaning, looking after themselves and caring for their heart through diet and exercise. It sounds so easy to live to 100, when he puts it like that!

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