Life expectancy varies around the world, influenced by factors such as healthcare quality, diet, lifestyle, and economic prosperity. However, there’s one constant trend seen nearly universally: on nearly every part of the world – from the bustling cities of Japan to the quiet countryside of Iceland, women, on average, live longer than men.
This pattern, known as the ‘gender longevity gap,’ has puzzled scientists and laypeople alike for decades.
Statistically, the gap in life expectancy between men and women has remained consistent, with women living about 5-7 years longer than men across many cultures and countries. As of 2019, global life expectancy at birth was 73.7 years for women and 69.4 years for men, according to the World Health Organization.
In this article, we will explore the myriad factors, ranging from biological to lifestyle choices, contributing to this global trend.
Women’s double X chromosomes may confer certain genetic advantages. Because they have two copies of each gene, a fault in one can often be compensated for by the other. This natural backup system doesn’t exist in men, as they carry one X and one Y chromosome. This has been proposed as one reason why women typically outlive men. Disorders linked to the X chromosome, such as hemophilia and certain types of color blindness, more commonly affect men because they have a single X chromosome.
Estrogen, more prevalent in women until the onset of menopause, seems to play a critical role in women’s longevity. It is known to help maintain blood vessel health by boosting the amount of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol, and decreasing the amount of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol. Additionally, women tend to store fat more on their hips and thighs (gynoid distribution), while men store it around the abdomen (android distribution). Abdominal fat is more closely associated with an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Social and Behavioral Factors
Men are statistically more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors, which can lead to earlier mortality. For instance, men are more prone to smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and engaging in dangerous sports or activities. These behaviors can increase the risk of various health problems, including lung cancer, liver disease, and fatal injuries.
Health Care Utilization
Women tend to be more proactive about their health. They generally visit healthcare providers more often, follow prescribed treatment regimens more consistently, and are more likely to have routine check-ups and screenings. These preventative measures can lead to earlier disease detection and treatment, ultimately contributing to increased longevity.
Occupational hazards can also play a part in the longevity gap. Men have traditionally been more likely to work in physically demanding and dangerous jobs, such as construction, mining, and the military. These occupations carry inherent risks, including exposure to harmful substances and a higher chance of accidents, which could contribute to a shorter lifespan.
Sex and Its Toll on Male Health
An intriguing facet of the longevity puzzle lies in the examination of historical records of a very specific subset of the male population: eunuchs. Eunuchs, men who have been castrated, often at a young age, have historically served in various societal roles in many different cultures.
One such study comes from the era of the Chosun Dynasty in Korea, which ruled from 1392 to 1897. In this study, researchers compared the lifespan of over 80 eunuchs to those of non-castrated men of similar social standing. The eunuchs’ lifespans were found to be 14 to 19 years longer on average than their counterparts, with three of the eunuchs living over 100 years.
This remarkable longevity of eunuchs was attributed to a few factors. The process of castration, which typically occurred before puberty, resulted in eunuchs not experiencing the hormonal changes associated with male puberty, including the surge in testosterone. High levels of testosterone in males have been linked to a host of health problems, such as heart disease and immune system dysfunction, which can potentially shorten lifespan.
In addition, the lack of sexual activity in eunuchs could potentially have a protective effect on their health.
The concept will be further discussed in the next section under “disposable soma theory” which posits that the male body is inherently programmed to grow larger, develop traits to attract females, and engage in combat with rivals. However, this growth and development comes at a trade-off, as each organism possesses only a finite amount of energy.
The eunuch study and similar findings from the animal kingdom are building a fascinating picture of the role of sex and sexual hormones in health and lifespan. For example, studies on certain types of birds and insects have shown that females, who engage in less sexual activity than males, tend to live longer.
However, it’s important to note that these studies are not suggesting castration or abstinence as a path to longevity. Rather, they underscore the complex interplay of biological, environmental, and lifestyle factors that contribute to the gender lifespan gap. They also open up new avenues of research into how hormones and sexual activity influence health and aging.
This area of research is a testament to the fact that our understanding of longevity is continually evolving. As scientists continue to unravel these complex interactions, we may gain new insights into not only why women live longer than men, but also how we can apply these findings to improve health and lifespan for everyone.
Evolutionary theories offer intriguing perspectives on the gender longevity gap. Two prominent hypotheses, the “grandmother hypothesis” and the “disposable soma theory,” propose compelling explanations.
The “grandmother hypothesis” suggests women live longer because of the benefits that post-reproductive females (grandmothers) provide to their grandchildren’s survival. A study in the Journal of the North American Menopause Society proposed that grandmothers help increase the life expectancy of grandchildren by sharing wisdom, assisting in childcare, and providing extra resources. As such, women who could live longer past their reproductive age would have provided a survival advantage to their descendants, a trait favored by natural selection.
On the other hand, the “disposable soma theory” speculates that organisms only have a limited amount of energy that can be divided between reproduction and maintenance of the body, or the “soma.” In many species, males are more focused on reproduction (growing larger, developing traits to attract females, fighting rivals), which might divert energy away from body maintenance. As a result, males might have shorter lifespans than females.
A further evolutionary aspect to consider is that males often tend to take more risks due to competitive behavior for mates, according to sexual selection theory. This risky behavior can lead to higher mortality rates in men.
However, these theories are based on evolutionary premises and tend to be more speculative in nature. They offer interesting perspectives, but the full understanding of why women live longer involves a complex interplay of biological, societal, and psychological factors.
This evolutionarily ingrained longevity difference could have been amplified by societal influences as human society developed. The combination of biological advantages and behavioral differences seem to contribute to the observed longevity gap between men and women.
Do female animals live longer?
The pattern of females outliving males is not exclusive to humans and can be observed across a wide variety of animal species. For example, in most bird and mammal species, females live longer than males. The reasons behind this are complex and multifaceted, and are likely due to a combination of genetics, environmental factors, and behavioral differences discussed above.
In many species, males often engage in riskier behavior than females, which can lead to increased mortality rates. For example, male lions are known to engage in fierce battles over territory and mates, which can result in injury or death. Males of many species also often have more conspicuous physical traits that make them more visible to predators, such as the colorful plumage of male peacocks or birds of paradise.
In addition, in many species, males expend a significant amount of energy in the competition for mates. This can lead to physical stress and can potentially shorten their lifespan. This pattern is so prevalent that scientists have coined a term for it, the “live fast, die young” strategy, referring to the trade-off many males make between reproduction and survival.
However, it’s important to note that this is not a universal rule, and there are exceptions. In some species, such as certain types of spiders and insects, males live significantly shorter lives than females, primarily due to their mating habits. In other species, like certain types of tortoises and birds, males can outlive females.
These variations in lifespan across the animal kingdom highlight the complex interplay of factors that influence longevity, including sex, genetics, behavior, and environment. As with humans, understanding why these differences in lifespan occur is a complex and ongoing area of scientific research.
Longevity and Aging
Women generally live longer but also tend to experience more years of ill health compared to men. This ‘health-survival paradox’ could be due to women’s greater resilience to certain health conditions. For instance, women seem to be better equipped to handle the impacts of cardiovascular disease, often developing it later in life than men. They live with the disease for longer periods, which, while contributing to years lived in poorer health, also contributes to their overall longevity.
Understanding these factors will help improve our approach to health and longevity for both sexes. The aim should not just be on living longer, but on improving the ‘healthspan’—the number of years lived in good health.