By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 25 March 2010)
In America, a woman’s average lifespan is 80.4 years, while the average man lives just 75.2 (Simon, 25 February 2010), but the U.S. isn’t the only nation where women outlive men. There is a life expectancy gender gap in most countries around the world, with 9 females reaching the age of 100 for every 1 male (Cromie, 1 October 1998). This wasn’t always the case, however. In the past, women had a shorter life expectancy than men due to high mortality rates in childbirth, but when maternal mortality decreased, women’s life expectancy surpassed that of men.
Males of all ages die at higher rates than women from cancer, heart disease, lung disease, strokes, violence, and accidents, and there are a number of reasons for this. One is genetic — the second X chromosome that women have acts as an “override” for certain recessive genetic conditions such as hemophilia. However, men’s lives are more likely to be cut short as a result of behaviour than biology.
Sex Hormones Play a Role in Immune Function and Cholesterol Levels
While both men and women have testosterone and estrogen, men have higher testosterone levels and women higher estrogen levels. Estrogen tends to increase immune system activity, whereas testosterone can dampen it. Also, estrogen causes women to have more HDL (good) cholesterol and less LDL (bad) cholesterol than men on average, which decreases their risk for heart disease and stroke. However, engaging in regular exercise can shift the balance, increasing HDL and decreasing LDL.
Abdominal Fat Increases Heart Disease Risk
Men are more inclined to put on fat in the abdominal area, which is associated with higher rates of heart disease. Women, by contrast, more often carry fat below the waist.
Emotional Repression and Lack of Social Support Take a Toll
Men are more inclined to suffer work-related stress and to have less well-developed social networks of supportive friends. Many married men rely almost completely on their wives for emotional support, making them more vulnerable in the case of divorce or death of a spouse. Suppressing emotions can also play a role in undermining physical health among men.
Risk Taking Increases Death Rates from Violence and Accidents
Men are more likely to put themselves in situations where they could become victims of violence, as well as taking other risks, such as engaging in extreme sports and driving recklessly. As a result, they are more likely to die from accidents, suicide, and homicide than women, particularly in early adulthood, and men of lower socioeconomic status (SES) are more likely to die as a result of risk-taking than their high-SES counterparts.
Men Are More Likely to Abuse Substances
There are higher rates of substance abuse among men, with 3.3 male alcoholics for every female alcoholic (Simon, 25 February 2010). However, as more women take up bad habits such as smoking, the gender gap for certain illnesses has become narrower. For example, from 1978 to 1998, lung cancer deaths among women nearly tripled (Cromie, 1 October 1998).
Women Seek Preventative Medical Care More Often
Women are more likely to consult a medical practitioner when they experience adverse symptoms. U.S. women account for 471 million doctors’ office visits per year, compared to just 316 million for men (Simon, 25 February 2010). They are also more inclined to seek regular medical screening for common health problems. Men, by contrast, tend to ignore problems and hope they will go away. Men are more likely to consider it a sign of weakness to acknowledge symptoms of illness. They are more inclined to be stoic and ignore bodily signals that may indicate serious problems until it’s too late to do anything about them.
Men’s Hearts Lose Power as They Age
According to David Goldspink, a professor specializing in cell and molecular sports science at Liverpool John Moores University, the pumping power of a man’s heart falls 20%-25% on average between the ages of 18 and 70. Women’s hearts, by contrast, show no age-related decline. Given that heart disease is a leading cause of death, this gives women a serious advantage. However, research indicates that the hearts of male athletes can be as powerful at age 70 as those of relatively inactive 20-year-old men, which means that men have the ability to preserve their heart power as they age (European Commission, 21 January 2005).
Keeping a Few New Year’s Resolutions Can Reduce the Risk of Early Death
The good news is that approximately 70% of the determining factors for life expectancy are behavioural and environmental, and only 30% genetic (Blue, 6 August 2008). This can be seen in the narrowing of the gender longevity gap that has occurred as women have taken up smoking and entered high-power occupations in the workforce. Men can further narrow the longevity gap by making healthy lifestyle choices, engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise, making rational choices as to which risks are worth taking, and reducing time spent in stressful environments.
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- American Heart Association (10 December 10 2007). “Abdominal Fat Distribution Predicts Heart Disease, Study Shows.” ScienceDaily.com.
- Blue, Laura. (6 August 2008). “Why Do Women Live Longer Than Men?” Time.com.
- Britt, Robert Roy. (10 May 2006). “Men Pay the Ultimate Price to Attract Women.” LiveScience.com.
- Cromie, William J. (10 October 1998). “Why Women Live Longer Than Men.” Harvard University Gazette, HNO.Harvard.edu.
- European Commission – Research Headlines. (21 January 2005). “Why Women Live Longer Than Men.” EC.Europa.eu.
- Hitti, Miranda. (11 May 2006). “Why Do Women Live Longer Than Men?” Women.WebMD.com.
- Simon, Harvey B., MD. (25 February 2010). “Is Being Male Hazardous to Your Health?” Harvard Medical School, Intelihealth.com.