Anyone who has visited a retirement home knows that women live longer than men. The reasons why are not as obvious.
Women: They outlive, they outlast. Globally, women have an average life expectancy that’s about 4.6 years longer than men’s. And they live longer than men in every country in the world. It’s been known for years, but scientists still are trying to figure out exactly why it is. Here, Hiram Beltran-Sanchez, PhD, a researcher who focuses on demographics and health, helps us sort out what we know and have recently come to understand about female longevity.
TRUE OR FALSE: Men die sooner because they engage in riskier behavior.
TRUE. When it comes to diet and smoking, men historically have been bigger risk takers. That puts them at greater risk of deadly lung and heart diseases. But that’s been less true in modern times, when women began adopting those risks, too.
“Smoking, early on in the 1900s, was mainly a male hobby,” Beltran-Sanchez says. “That changed in the 1950s or ’60s.” That said, men are still more likely to smoke than women; nearly 17 in 100 American men smoke, while nearly 14 in 100 American women do.
TRUE OR FALSE: Biological differences put women at an advantage.
COULD BE TRUE. Heart disease historically has lowered survival rates for men. That’s because men are more vulnerable to cardiovascular damage and women are more resistant, Beltran-Sanchez says. Scientists are still looking for a clear-cut reason for this advantage, though cholesterol plays a role. Studies have shown that before women reach menopause, estrogen increases good cholesterol and decreases so-called bad cholesterol.
TRUE OR FALSE: Women live longer because of hormonal differences.
MAYBE. Some scientists hypothesize that estrogen helps lower mortality rates up until menopause. Mortality rates among women do rise more sharply after menopause, but they don’t keep pace with mortality rates of men. Beltran-Sanchez says that although researchers are exploring this, the link hasn’t been proved.
TRUE OR FALSE: Longevity is increasing for men, too, and the life-span difference between men and women is narrowing.
TRUE. “Women are doing worse; now it looks like men and women are catching up,” Beltran-Sanchez says. Men still are more likely to die at younger ages. But because behavior differences between men and women aren’t as severe anymore — women are taking risks, too — their average life spans also will look more similar. This is especially true for white women, for whom life expectancy is going down. (Researchers think it’s driven in part by rising suicide rates, alcohol and drug poisonings, and liver disease.)
“Things are changing so much,” Beltran-Sanchez says, “I’m not sure how much longer we’re going to keep seeing this large female advantage.”
“Regardless of how their average life expectancy stacks up against that of men, women should make healthy, proactive lifestyle choices to help ensure they stay fit well into their senior years,” says Suzanne Wolf, board-certified nurse practitioner at Beaufort Memorial Gynecology Specialists. “Getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night, maintaining a healthy body weight, controlling stress, exercising daily and getting age-appropriate health screenings can make the difference between golden later years and ones filled with chronic health issues or even debilitating disease.”
Stay on top of your health with guidance from Beaufort Memorial Hospital. Read more about women’s health here.