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Fun Facts: Why Do Women Live Longer Than Men?

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 29 May 2012 | comments*Discuss
Life Expectancy Women Men Live Longer

Women may often be known as “the weaker sex” but when it comes to health and life-expectancy, women have the upper hand. In almost every country in the world, women live longer than men and have been doing so for centuries. In fact, amongst people over 100 years old, 85% of them are women. Men are 5 times more likely to suffer from heart disease and are also more likely to have high blood pressure. Their injury rates are higher and they are even more likely to commit suicide!

So why is it that women should be so much better than men at making it into old age? There are a lot of reasons – some biological - but what is surprising is that a lot of it is to do with the lifestyle that comes with “being male”!

Longer Life...

  • Female sex hormones, like oestrogen, play an important role in protecting women from cardiovascular disease, like strokes and heart attacks, until women reach menopause. This means that they tend to develop these problems later, in their 70s and 80s, whereas men often develop such problems as early as their 50’s.
  • Menstruation causes women to be relatively iron-deficient, compared to men, and this actually has a beneficial effect on longevity because iron is an important component in the cell reactions which producing damaging free-radicals, believed to play a pivotal role in cell ageing.
  • Women may have a genetic advantage too in that they have two X chromosomes (compared to men to only have one) which means that women’s cells always have a “second choice” during replication and a second chance of another copy of DNA which isn’t damaged.
  • Just as female sex hormones in women may play a protective role, unfortunately, male sex hormones in men may actually encourage men to put their health at risk. Research at Harvard Medical School has found that testosterone encourages and increases competitive and aggressive behaviour, particularly in young men. Another study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that men are much more likely than women to engage in violent and risky behaviour, which can lead to death – for example, such as reckless driving, extreme sports, etc. Researches have even coined a term for this time of increase in risky, violent behaviour which often coincides with puberty: “testosterone storm”.
  • Evolution can also play a part – men can ensure better spread of their genes not by staying alive longer but by impregnating as many women as possible. This means that even in our modern monogamous society, men are instinctively inclined to want to “impress” women, often through risky behaviour, without proper consideration to maximising safety and health.
  • In addition, when men experience uncertainty or deprivation – when they are under stress – they tend to choose riskier life strategies to deal with their problems.
  • Traditionally, men have engaged in much more health-damaging habit, such as smoking more and drinking more alcohol.
  • Men tend to be more careless about pro-active protection and prevention before a problem develops – such as preventing skin cancer through sunscreen and avoidance
  • Men are also less careful about their diet, often eating more takeaway foods, sugary and fatty foods – and less fresh fruits and vegetables. This leads to obesity and increased risks of stroke, heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer, as well as issues like arthritis and gall stones. Given that they already lack the protective function of female sex hormones, this is just like heaping oil on top of the fire!
  • Men tend to eat more meat – and are also less likely to trim fat off the meat than women. Not only does this contribute towards cardiovascular disease but studies show that red meat itself, which is high in iron and its free-radical encouragement (see above) may be directly linked to increased heart attacks, strokes and other similar cardiovascular issues.
  • In spite of all these greater health risks, men are actually less likely to go and see a doctor, partake in preventative health checks (e.g. blood pressure) and often don’t report symptoms until it is too late.
  • Finally, men tend to internalise stress and not deal with it as well as women, who tend to communicate better and be more adept at expressing their emotions. While the processes are still poorly understood, it is widely accepted now that stress can play a significant role in cardiovascular disease and in undermining the immune system.

However, for all those men reading this – take heart: studies show that a much larger proportion of men’s life expectancy is determined by environmental factors (e.g. lifestyle, diet) than by genetics. In other words, you’re more at risk because of what you do than because of what you are. Therefore it is possible to make a significant difference to your life expectancy simply by changing your habits and lifestyle.

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