Why do women live longer than men?

Author
Alexandra Bhatti
Date
6 September 2018
Faculty
Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences

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Alexandra Bhatti, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Health Systems and Populations, explains.

Women typically live longer than men in all countries by various margins and interestingly this trend is not new. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the current life expectancy for Australian women is 84.6 years, a sizable four years longer than the 80.4-year life expectancy for men.  This four-year gap is mirrored globally.

The oldest woman ever, Jeanne Calment, died at the age of 122 in 1997

Chocoholic: Jeanne Calmert, 122, thought to be the oldest woman to ever live, smoked and ate more than a kilo of chocolate daily.

The widest gap, of 13 years in Syria, is likely due in part to the effect of civil conflict on males. The narrowest gaps of one year are found in a handful of low-income West African countries .

One 2018 study  found women live longer than men even during severe famines and epidemics.

Research to date provides evidence for both biological and social factors that influence the life expectancy gap and it’s likely to be a complex interaction of these factors that is responsible.

What is surprising, is that these gaps persist despite the social inequalities that women experience, such as on average earning less than men and being more likely to experience domestic violence.

Choices count: Men tend to be bigger risk-takers than women and are more likely to be obese and drink too much alcohol.

From the biological perspective, the female hormone estrogen has protective factors prior to menopause that lower bad cholesterol and can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease such as stroke.  Conversely, the male hormone testosterone raises bad cholesterol, that can expose men to a higher risk of disease.

In terms of behaviours, studies have shown that women tend to be more healthcare seeking than men including more frequent visits to the GP , which can aid the process of diagnosis and improved health outcomes. Women also tend to engage in less risky behaviours than men. In Australia, men are more likely to be overweight or obese and engage in daily smoking and drink alcohol in risky quantities.  Men also have higher rates of suicide compared to women .

There is much more to this fascinating phenomenon, and it is important to remember that life expectancy estimates are based on projected life duration, which does not weigh up the many other factors that influence how long we actually live for.

The good news is that despite women living longer, Australian males have one of the highest life expectancies in the world, with only Iceland and Switzerland having marginally higher life expectancies.

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