Longevity…women (and children) last please

Contrary to what insurance pricing legislation suggests, women do, in fact, live longer than men – a phenomenon that has been true for centuries and doesn’t seem to be changing.  But as male and female lifestyles converge what other factors are at play to explain the stubbornness of the gender mortality gap?

The survival advantage of women is seen in every country, in every year, for which reliable records exist. The difference in lifespan has even remained stable throughout monumental shifts in society. In 1800 in Sweden, for example, life expectancy was 33 years for women and 31 for men; today it is 83.5 years and 79.5 years, respectively.  In both cases, women live about 5% longer than men.

Factors such as smoking, drinking, and overeating may partly explain why the size of the gender gap varies so widely between countries.  In Russia, for example, men are likely to die 13 years earlier than women, partly because they drink and smoke more heavily.  But then female chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons also consistently outlive the males of the group – a fact that can’t be ascribed to poor lifestyle choices.

Instead, it would seem like the answer lies in our evolution and there are many plausible theories which could help explain this biological difference. These range from the benefits of having two X chromosomes and the “jogging female heart” hypothesis, to the simple fact that taller people (which men generally are), with more cells in their bodies, are more likely to develop harmful mutations and suffer worse wear and tear.

But perhaps the true reason lies in testosterone – the hormone that drives most other male characteristics.  A study of 19th century Korean court life shows that eunuchs lived for around 70 years – compared to an average of just 50 years among the other men in the court.  Even the kings – who were the most pampered people in the palace – did not come close.

Although not all studies of other types of eunuch have shown such pronounced differences, overall it seems that people (and animals) without testicles do live longer. Sorry, guys.

Not only do women escape the risks of testosterone – they may also benefit from their own “elixir of youth” that helps heal some of the ravages of time due to the presence of the antioxidant hormone, oestrogen.

The reason for this may be a kind of evolutionary pay-off that gave both men and women the best chances of passing on their genes.  During mating, women would be more likely to go for alpha males, pumped up on testosterone.  But once the children are born, the men are more disposable; it matters more for the children that the mother’s body should be in good shape, rather than the father’s.

Now there’s some, um, ballsy water-cooler chat for you!

More Lighter Side articles.

Pamela Hellig