Women usually live longer than men. Why is this - and are modern day vices, such as smoking and drinking, reducing the longevity gap?
Life expectancy in the UK is currently 79.6 years for men and 83.2 years for women. So why do women tend to live longer?
Male vs Female hormones
- Young males - teens to early twenties - are fuelled with higher levels of the testosterone hormone and this is a contributory factor to men being more aggressive and competitive. Competitiveness among men also increased when attractive women were present. This results in young men taking more risks than women of a similar age, such as riding motor bikes without helmets or getting into fights – thereby increasing their risk of an early death.
- Testosterone works closely with cholesterol in the body and this can cause problems in later life for men. Research by the Endocrine Society, reported in 2015, has shown that high levels of testosterone leads the body to produce lower levels of ‘good’ cholesterol. However, testosterone does not have any impact on ‘bad’ cholesterol, blood pressure or body fat. This leaves the male body more susceptible to cardiovascular disease.
- A 2012 study, using historical data on castrated eunuchs in Korea, shows that they lived 14 years longer than their non-castrated socio economic male equivalents. This further suggests that testosterone (production of which is dramatically reduced by castration) is negatively linked to male longevity.
- Pre-menopausal women, on the other hand, are protected by the sex hormone oestrogen. This study explain that sex hormones, particularly estrogens, possess potent antioxidant properties and play important roles in maintaining normal reproductive and non-reproductive functions. Furthermore oestrogen has ability to repair DNA in organs such as the brain. Another study demontrated that oestrogen could help protect women from cardiovascular disease, by stopping white blood cells sticking to the insides of blood vessels, a process which can lead to dangerous blockages. ‘The results could help explain why cardiovascular disease rates tend to be higher in men and why they soar in women after the menopause.’
In most species, including humans, women are the main carers for the young. So from an evolutionary perspective, it is probably more important that women live longer, to ensure the wellbeing of their children and thus the survival of the human race.
As Professor Thomas Kirkwood has asked, ‘could it be that women live longer because they are less disposable than men?’
Other Biological Factors
- Women have two X-chromosomes, while men only have one. This may act like an insurance policy.
- Women tend to be more iron deficient due to menstruation. High levels of iron encourages the formation of free radicals and an increased cancer risk. So this may also explain why women generally live longer than men. That’s according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Is the longevity gap between the sexes closing?
- Smoking is a particular risk for women. They now smoke at around the same rate as men. This is important because smoking increases the risk of chronic heart disease in both sexes - but the risk is believed to be 25% greater for women compared with men. That was the conclusion from a systematic review published in The Lancet in 2011.
- Alcohol, like tobacco, also disproportionately increases the health risk for women compared with men, as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains. This includes an increased risk of liver disease, brain damage, damage to the heart muscle and some cancers.
- Obesity levels have risen across most of the developed world. For women in the UK levels are similar to those for men (at 30% versus 27%). Unfortunately, obesity increases health risks for both men and women, including type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.
- Women may sometimes experience different heart disease symptoms than men and so not always recognise the risk. For example they may experience pressure or tightness in the chest rather than chest pain or other symptoms such as right arm pain, shortness of breath, nausea or sweating.
- Conversely, rising affluence and the need for less manual labour is being linked to longer life for men. For example few men in the UK are now involved in hazardous, physically demanding jobs like mining. In 2015 the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that professional and higher managerial men in the UK can expect to live for 82.5 years, one month longer than the 82.4 years of life expectancy for the average woman.
As some women adopt male patterns of smoking and drinking, perhaps not realising they are at greater risk then men; as obesity levels rise (with the knock on health effects); as women may not always recognize the different symptoms of heart disease; and as some men benefit from less physically demanding work and higher incomes, the overall gap between how long the two sexes live seems to be narrowing.
- Women appear to be biologically more predisposed to living longer than men.
- There may be an evolutionary reason for this i.e. women, as the primary carers, are designed to live longer to ensure the survival of the human race.
- However, women face even higher health risks from smoking and too much alcohol than men, so adopting male patterns of smoking and drinking may reduce their initial biological advantage – with obesity another risk factor.
- Women also need to check that they know the symptoms of heart disease - and how these may differ for them compared with men.
- Conversely, men who have higher incomes and less physically demanding jobs, now seem to be living as long as the average woman.
Reviewed and updated by Kayhan Nouri-Aria Februray 2020. Next review date, November 2024.