Why Do Women Live Longer Than Men?

The twentieth century surge in male mortality is linked to lifestyle choices.

Posted Jul 08, 2015

PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock
Source: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock

Women live longer than men primarily because of modern lifestyle factors, rather than any biological difference, a new study has found.

Statistically, women are less prone to heart disease and smoking-related illnesses—which are the leading causes of death—due to making healthier lifestyles choices.

The July 2015 study, "Twentieth Century Surge of Excess Adult Male Mortality," was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study was conducted by a team of University of Southern California (USC) Leonard Davis School of Gerontology researchers including Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez, Caleb E. Finch, Ph.D., and Eileen M. Crimmins, Ph.D. 

The researchers compiled data from more than 1,700 birth cohorts across a 135-year-period from 1800 to 1935. The study looked at 13 developed countries, including England, France, Italy and Spain. Interestingly, significant differences in life expectancies between women and men didn't emerge until the 20th century. 

Overall, the study found that mortality rates for both men and women decreased during the 19th and 20th century, but women began reaping the longevity benefits of lifestyle factors at a much faster rate as the 20th century progressed.

Women currently live longer than men in every country of the world. According to UN data from 2013, the average life expectancy for women globally was almost 4.5 years longer with an average life expectancy of 71 years compared to 66.5 years for men.

Heart Disease Is the Leading Cause of Male Mortality

CLIPAREA Modern Media/Shutterstock
Source: CLIPAREA Modern Media/Shutterstock

Heart disease was identified as the leading factor in the disproportionate adult male mortality of the 20th century. The study reports that among people born between 1880 and 1919, heart disease and stroke accounted for more than 40 percent of the increase in the male to female mortality ratio at ages 55-80.

The team found that for individuals born after 1880, female death rates decreased 70 percent faster than those of males for people over age 40. After controlling for smoking-related illnesses, cardiovascular disease was still the leading cause of the vast majority of excess deaths in adult men.

"In the wake of this massive but uneven decrease in mortality, a review of global data points to heart disease as the culprit behind most of the excess deaths documented in adult men," USC University Professor and AARP Professor of Gerontology Eileen Crimmins said in a press release.

"We were surprised at how the divergence in mortality between men and women, which originated as early as 1870, was concentrated in the 50 to 70 age range and faded out sharply after age 80," Crimmins added.

Smoking contributed to 30 percent of excess male mortality between ages 50-70 from 1880 onwards. According to World Health Organisation (WHO) data from 2010, the global rate of smoking is more than four times higher in men than women, with 40 percent of men smoking compared to 9 perent of women.

Conclusion: Lifestyle Factors Can Dramatically Reduce Mortality Risks

Each of us has the choice to make healthier lifestyle choices. Hopefully, these findings will motivate you to make healthier choices starting today—regardless of your gender

Finch concluded, "The uneven impact of cardiovascular illness-related deaths on men, especially during middle and early older age, raises the question of whether men and women face different heart disease risks due to inherent biological risks and/or protective factors at different points in their lives."

"Further study could include analysis of diet and exercise activity differences between countries, deeper examination of genetics and biological vulnerability between sexes at the cell level, and the relationship of these findings to brain health at later ages," he said.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

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