Why Do Women Live Longer?

Charlotte Atherton

Gender equality has been somewhat of a hot topic over the past few years as we endlessly debate who has it better – men or women? However, there is something that women can scientifically say we are better at: living longer. While life expectancy in general has increased by 6 years since 1990 (according to the World Health Organisation), women are outliving men by a further 5-6 years. So why is this? Well, there are several reasons why women seem to be beating men in the race to live longer and it mostly seems to be due to their biological make-up.

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Image Credit: Pexels

While all know men and women can behave differently, men are much more likely to put themselves into a situation where they suffer an accidental death. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, accidental injury is the third-leading cause of death for men in the US (it comes in at 6th for women), after heart disease and cancer. Men are generally more risky than women and are therefore more likely to hurt themselves – but don’t blame them, it might be ingrained in their brain. Several studies have shown that the frontal lobe develops much slower in men than in women. One of the functions of the brain’s frontal lobe happens to be risk assessment, which means that men are much more likely to choose a riskier option than women of the same age. This is also supported by the fact that during the ages of 15-24, where there is an increase in risky behaviour, men are roughly twice as likely to die than women.

While male behaviour may be linked to their shorter life spans, women’s bodies may generally be better adapted to live longer. A study done by the Tokyo Medical and Dental University showed that women’s immune systems age slower than men’s, meaning they can be better at fighting diseases. The study looked at the levels of white blood cells and other defences that help fight off infection in healthy men and women between the ages of 20-90. They found that men had a more rapid decrease in the levels of these cells as they aged compared to women, leaving them more susceptible. In general, women appear to have developed more sturdy bodies, in order to allow them to better carry children.

There have also been several studies conducted that suggest that some sexual traits, such as sex hormones and menstruation, may also play a part in how long we live for. While testosterone can increase aggressive and risky behaviour, linking to the earlier point of men suffering from more accidental deaths, oestrogen may help to prevent women from developing heart disease until later in life. Women develop heart disease around 10 years later than men (on average) and it has been suggested that this may be due to oestrogen, which may help to keep arteries more flexible.

Others disagree that oestrogen is the reason we see this delay in cardiovascular diseases in women, and think that it may actually be due to the fact that women are generally more iron-deficient than men in the pre-menopausal stages of their lives. Iron can cause the production of molecules called free radicals in cells, which cause cell damage and aging – damage that can lead to heart disease and cardiovascular problems. Generally, pre-menopausal women are iron-deficient due to menstruation which may explain why they develop heart disease later than men and after menopause. A study done in the Netherlands helps support this theory that higher iron levels increase the chances of developing heart disease, as it looked at a population living in an area where little to no red meat, a major source of iron, is consumed. Their results found that the rate of heart disease halved compared to populations where red meat is consumed.

Women’s XX sex chromosomes also help shield women from many diseases and genetic problems, unlike male XY sex chromosomes. There are some conditions that are associated with the Y chromosome (and therefore only affect males) that can be harmful for health, so women gain many immunities simply by carrying two copies of the X chromosome. There are many recessive genetic conditions, such as haemophilia and Muscular Dystrophy, that may lead to a shortened life which are associated with the X chromosome. Recessive X-linked conditions are inherited when one faulty copy of the gene is inherited in the case of males, or when two faulty copies of the gene are inherited in females. It is much rarer for females to develop these conditions as even if they inherit one copy of the faulty gene, their other X chromosome will carry a healthy copy of the gene to protect her from the condition.

While there are loads of reasons women live longer than men, it seems to be mostly due to biological make-up, so while we can argue till we’re blue in the face about who has it worse: sorry, men, but when it comes to living longer – we win.