Why do women live longer than men?

Men live shorter lives in almost every part of the world. But what makes women the stronger gender?

Tue, Mar 19, 2013, 10:30

The Transport Club Bingo Hall in Crumlin is where you can meet some of Ireland ’s most robust citizens – the over-70s females.

When it comes to the ultimate show of strength – who can stay alive the longest – the women gathering here tonight for a weekly bingo showdown are among the elite. Most have outlived their husbands, male siblings and friends by many years.

Why do men die before their wives? “Because they want to,” according to one joke. The mostly female crowd at bingo have a rather different theory.

“My husband died 16 years ago and he used to always say he’d see me down,” says 84-year-old Elizabeth Whelan proudly. “Women are stronger. If a man got the prod of a pin, he’d go to bed where if you broke your knee, he’d send you to work. My husband did work hard alright but he was strong as a horse for the drinking when he hit the pub.”

According to another bingo goer, Patricia Lynch, who was widowed in her early 50s, women live longer because they have more responsibilities.

“That’s what makes them stronger, they want to keep going for their families. We copped it a long time ago that men die younger because all my friends are widows.”

Woman after woman here recounts how her husband died years ago and that the men in their families lived shorter lives.

Different lifespans
Irish men live an average of five years less than Irish women. Walk into any nursing home in the State and you will find four women to every man. A spokesperson from Áras an Uachtaráin confirmed that only “two out of 10” applications for the centenarian bounty, a gift from the President to citizens who reach their 100th birthday, are male.

Men live shorter lives in almost every part the world but the gap varies from country to country. In Russia, they die around 12 years earlier, 5.3 years earlier in the UK and 0.6 years in India.

In a handful of countries, women’s lot is so poor that their usual life expectancy advantage is null and void. The average Afghan women lives to 41, a year less than an Afghan man, partly because of the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world and chronic sex discrimination.

The science behind why men die younger is complex and much debated. According to gerontologists, about 30 per cent of the difference can be explained by biology and the remaining 70 per cent by environmental factors.

One controversial theory is that women’s long-term survival is more important because of their childbearing role. In most species, but particularly where offspring are highly dependant on adults for survival for a long number of years, females have evolved to survive longer to bring their young to maturity.

Men have a genetic disadvantage that is there from conception. Male babies are more likely to be miscarried (for every 115 males conceived, only 104 will be born) and during the first year of life, male mortality is 25 per cent greater than female mortality.

Although 104 boys are born for every 100 girls, by age 25 women are in the majority. Because females have two X chromosomes, a woman with an abnormal gene on one of her X chromosomes has a back-up on the second and so can avoid the expression of disease. Men have an X and a Y chromosome so they have no “spare” if a gene is defective.

Sex hormones

Experts believe that sex hormones also play a role in the life-expectancy gap.

The female hormone oestrogen is thought to offer protection against heart disease and cholesterol. Women develop heart problems in their 70s and 80s, about a decade later than men.

The male sex hormone testosterone increases levels of bad cholesterol in the blood and decreases levels of good cholesterol, putting men at greater risk of heart disease and stroke.

Testosterone is also linked to risky, violent behaviour, particularly among young men whose bodies are swirling with it. They are three times more likely to die from violence than women, and men of all ages are four times more likely to die by suicide.

The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda) is a 10-year project looking at the health and social status of 8,000 over-50s in Ireland. It is the most comprehensive research of its kind ever to be carried out in the State and is returning interesting information about the over-50s population.

Dr Joanne Feeney, a health research fellow with Tilda, says that certain trends emerging in the data may explain why Irish men live shorter lives.

“Hypertension is more common in men than women which is a major risk factor for a variety of diseases. Also, 84 per cent of men in the study were overweight or obese versus 71 per cent of females so there is a higher risk profile for men in the area of cardiovascular health. Men are almost four times more likely than women to have cardiac arrhythmias.”

As cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death in Ireland, accounting for 36 per cent of all deaths, men’s greater risk of heart disease is significant.

Social contact
Women in the study are also proving more likely to volunteer and visit friends and family – the kind of regular social contact that relieves stress and protects health.

“There is data to show that women aged 50 and over are more socially engaged than men. They are more likely to stay networked in with friends and family and that is good for health,” says Feeney.

Tilda also found evidence that men are slower to visit the doctor. Some 44 per cent of men versus 53 per cent of women reported having visited their GP in the last year.

There are signs that the life-expectancy gap is narrowing as women take up traditionally male behaviours like consuming more alcohol and tobacco. Smoking is predicted to be the great leveller of male female longevity rates.

One in three Irish women now smokes and the Irish Cancer Society is concerned about what it calls the “crisis of female smoking in Ireland”.

“More women in Ireland are now dying from lung cancer than breast cancer which is quite shocking,” says ICS advocacy officer Rachel Wright. While lung cancer rates for men are falling 1 per cent each year, they are increasing 2 per cent annually for women.

As men have been dealt a poorer hand in biological terms, there will always be a gap of one to two years no matter how much clean living they do. However, three of the current five-year life-expectancy gap in Ireland could be shaved off by men making healthier lifestyle choices so they can stay longer with their womenfolk into old age.

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