The notion that women—on average—live longer than their male counterparts has been floating around for centuries. But far from being some urban legend, the data confirms it: when it comes to human life expectancy, women live longer.
Today, in the United States, the average woman will live to age 81, while the average man will live to just 76 — a difference of five years. And this phenomenon isn’t confined only to the U.S. In the U.K., there’s also a five-year difference. In France, there’s nearly an eight-year difference. Meanwhile, in Russia, women live approximately twelve years longer than men. What’s more, these “bonus” years women experience are typically spent in (relatively) good health. According to the World Health Organization, the average American man can expect to live 67 years without succumbing to a major injury or disease. The average American woman, on the other hand, can expect to spend 70 years in “full health.”
So, why the discrepancy? Why, on average, do women all over the world live longer (and healthier) lives than men?
Maybe she’s born with it (it’s in the genes)
A quick primer on genetics: females are born with two X chromosomes, while males are born with one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. X chromosomes contain genes that are crucial for survival, and the fact that women have two X chromosomes means they have backups of all of those crucial genes. Y chromosomes, in comparison, carry fewer genes, which aren’t essential to survival (e.g. genes for sprouting facial hair).
Some researchers argue that as humans age, this fundamental difference in sex chromosomes puts men at greater risk of disease. That’s because unlike women, men don’t have two X chromosomes, and hence they don’t have backups of essential genes. So as men age and their cells deteriorate… that’s it. There’s no genetic backup plan.
Historical records from Sweden — a country known for its meticulous record-keeping — support the theory of a genetic origin for the discrepancy between male and female life expectancy. Case in point: In 1800, life expectancy for Swedish women was 33 years, while life expectancy for Swedish men was 31 years. Flash forward to today, and those figures have jumped to 83.5 years for women and 79.5 years for men. However, the difference between male and female life expectancy has remained the same: about 5%. To quote the researchers who uncovered these findings:
“This remarkably consistent survival advantage of women compared with men in early life, in late life, and in total life is seen in every country in every year for which reliable birth and death records exist. There may be no more robust pattern in human biology.”
A tale of two hormones
The discussion around the biological reasons why women live longer than men will inevitably turn to estrogen, the primary female sex hormone, and testosterone, the primary male sex hormone.
Estrogen, as is turns out, might be the closest thing we have to an “elixir of life”—or at least an elixir of adding five extra years to your lifespan. The hormone appears to play an antioxidant role in the body, and a 2013 study found it can help promote healthy cell function and prevent DNA damage that could lead to disease. And, as explained in Scientific American, estrogen has been shown to eliminate bad (LDL) cholesterol from the body and may help protect against heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for both men and women. However, it’s worth noting that men are more likely to develop heart disease in their 30s and 40s, whereas women are more likely to develop it ten years later.
And then there’s testosterone: A hormone that, according to a 2012 study, can increase the risk for cardiovascular disease while simultaneously decreasing immune function. In other words, it seems to have the opposite effect that estrogen has on the body. But what makes testosterone even more of a culprit when it comes to shortening male lifespans is the effect it has on male behavior. Research suggests that elevated levels of testosterone can lead to men making “riskier choices” than women — the kind of choices that have the potential to shorten lives.
Men behaving badly: how behavior shapes life expectancy
According to the CDC, unintentional injuries are the third leading cause of death among men. Among women, unintentional injuries are the sixth leading cause of death. This discrepancy can be attributed, in part, to men behaving more recklessly and engaging in riskier behavior. The other factor to consider here is that in most industrialized countries, men are more likely to work in more dangerous professions, exposing them to a higher degree of on-the-job risk.
As a result of these biological and sociological factors, men are more likely to succumb to the so-called “man-made diseases,” which include industrial accidents, road accidents, alcoholism, smoking, and obesity. Men are also more likely to die in gunfights and brawls.
Women, in contrast, succumb to these less frequently. What’s more, women tend to engage more frequently than men in behaviors that promote longevity. For starters, women tend to have stronger social connections than men — connections that last into old age. Research shows that these connections can help lead to a decreased mortality risk. Compared to men, women are also more likely to talk about their health with others, and they tend to pay greater attention to the needs of their body. If they suspect an issue, women are also more likely to start a dialogue with their doctor.
“Most men tend to hold their stress and worries close to their chest, while women tend to reach out and talk to others… Men often deny illness; they minimize symptoms because they don’t want to go to a doctor and find out something is wrong.”Columbia University professor Marianne Legato, M.D.
Turns out, refusing to acknowledge potential health problems is not the best approach when trying to live a long and healthy life. And while it’s clear that sociology plays a role here, as men are often conditioned to “act tough” and brush off injuries and ailments, biology — testosterone in particular — is also at play. Ultimately, it’s the combination of the two that explains why women live longer than men.