Men and women are all eventually headed towards death, but nature tends to come for men first. The gap in life expectancy has shrunk in recent years – from 1990 to 2007, the gap narrowed from seven years to a little over five years in the United States. Women outlive men, it turns out, in every stage of life, starting in the womb.
Miscarriages are mostly male, although there is a slightly higher rate of boy babies born than girls (105 males for every 100 females.) In their early 20s, the male death rate spikes. The increase is unsurprising, considering the violence and bravado that often define that stage of life for men. Young men are headed to war, are more likely to fight, and engage in risky behavior like driving a motorcycle without a helmet. Surprisingly, when researchers control for violent or avoidable death, the female advantage still remains (although the spike disappears completely.)
The gender gap in death rates narrows from the late 20s to the 50s, but death still favors men. In the early 50s, the gender gap widens again, peaking in the 60s and 70s, and then narrows again. Male chances of living to become supercentenarians – someone who lives past 110 – are slim. As of July 2013, nine of the ten living supercentenarians were women. What makes women more durable creatures, outliving men at every stage of life? We’re not really sure, but we’ve got some ideas. What we can be sure of is that the old adage claiming that women are the weaker sex is flawed.
Culture or Genetics?
Human men are not alone in being outlived by their female counterparts. In most species, females live longer than males, suggesting that the gender gap is part of our biology. Possible biological causes are still debated. I’ve listed a few hypotheses below.
• Size For most species, the general rule is that the larger individuals in a species tend (on average) to live shorter lives than their smaller counterparts.
• Onset of cardiovascular disease If women suffer a heart attack or stroke, they usually do so a decade later than men do. Men typically face heart disease in their 50s, while women are in their 60s or 70s. Estrogen was thought to be the cause of delay, but studies have shown that may not be the case. We’ve also learned that giving women estrogen post-menopause can be harmful.
• Lower iron levels Women are iron deficient compared to men, especially young women, because of menstruation. Less iron translates into fewer free radicals, molecules that damage our cells and may contribute to aging.
• Value for reproduction Men and women both contribute to the creation of new human beings, but women are responsible for nine months of gestation. It may be that women are more durable – they have to be in order to continue the species.
We’re still not sure if the gender gap is biological. And if it is, there’s not much we can do to control it. The difference in life expectancy may also be cultural, an area where men can make a change. If you’re looking to narrow the gap, here are a few changes to make today.
• Quit smoking and cut back on the drinks Our culture has changed a lot since Don Draper’s halcyon days of Lucky Strikes and cocktails from lunch until dinner. Men are still heavier drinkers and more likely to smoke than women. Smoking may not always cause lung cancer, but it will always damage your health from your heart to your brain. Cut it out and you’ll live longer. Alcohol needs to be enjoyed responsibly. Studies have shown that people who indulge in a moderate number of drinks (like a glass of red wine at night) can actually live longer. But hitting the bottle hard does you no favors.
• Seek help with mental illness or depression Mental illness still carries a stigma, making seeking treatment difficult for some. If you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to ask for the help you need. There’s nothing un-masculine about getting the treatment you need and deserve. Depressed men have a higher death rate than depressed women do, especially if they’re older. Men who attempt suicide are more likely to succeed than women are. We must all work together to end the stigmatization of mental illness – there’s no shame in seeking treatment.
• Cut back on the derring-do This is a tough one to tackle. Men and women alike can think back to foolish decisions made in their teens and 20s and be grateful the outcome wasn’t different. We all take risks (our parents tried to warn us!) Talk to the young men in your life. Discuss how to handle dangerous situations with your teenager – like someone inebriated trying to take the wheel – with your teenager. Communication (and a bit of luck) can help young men make smarter decisions.