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Why Women Live Longer Than Men

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Why Women Live Longer Than Men about undefined
It’s not exactly breaking news that women live longer than men. According to the Centers for Disease Control,1 the average life expectancy for men in the United States is 76.4, compared to 81.2 for women.

There’s plenty of other evidence, too.

Take, for instance, the ill-fated Donner Party in 1846. Of the 87 original members of the group, 47 of them survived; 70 percent were women. And in Iceland during the 19th century, records show that women lived longer than men every single year … regardless of feast or famine.

You can pretty much confirm the same thing by visiting any nursing home: lots of women, fewer men.

What gives? I tried to find out. . .

Of the top 10 causes of death2 (ranging from heart disease to cancer), only one afflicts women more than men: Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers are intrigued by the reasons behind this disparity. Think about it and you’ll understand why this area of study has far-reaching implications for an aging America, including future medical interventions, and more.

And just to tease you to keep reading, I’ve come across a centenarian study that really turns the tables on previous theories suggesting women have got it better than men, healthwise…

Could Sex Chromosomes be the Answer?

In trying to find out why women live longer, it stands to reason that researchers looked into hormones – testosterone, estrogen, etc. But recent research suggests that sex chromosomes may be more influential than hormones. A University of California, San Francisco animal study3 explored how sex differences affected length of life.

The mice in the study had been genetically engineered to have male reproductive organs (and hormones), regardless of whether they had the normal male X and Y chromosome or two X chromosomes as females normally do. (Sounds creepy, I know, but let’s stick with it to see what we can learn. . .)

Other mice were similarly engineered to develop female reproductive parts regardless of their chromosomal make-up.

The stunning result was that having two X chromosomes (like normal females) led to a longer mouse life, whether the animal’s sex organs were male or female. Researchers have yet to crack the code on whether the survival advantage is due to the two Xs or simply to lack of the Y chromosome.

Dr. Dena Dubal, the study’s lead author, explains the importance of the study: “Understanding causes of sex‐based differences in aging could lead to new pathways to counter age‐induced decline in both sexes.”

Now this is a long way from confirming the same phenomenon in humans, especially when you consider the drastic medical intervention used in this study. For obvious reasons, this study will never be duplicated in humans.

But still it’s pretty good evidence that something on the chromosome explains the gender difference in longevity.

Other Theories to Consider

There are other reasons to explain why women live longer. Historically, men participate in more risky activities and dangerous jobs, such as the armed forces, not to mention coal mining, policing, fire-fighting and just about any job requiring great muscular strength. These jobs were exclusively male until just a few years ago, and they are still mostly male.

I don’t have any stats, but it does seem like males are more likely to engage in high-risk activities ranging from hang-gliding to drag racing to bungee jumping.

And, although not proven, some believe that women live longer because they are more likely to get regular health screenings that would alert them to problems earlier.

Still, this isn’t to say that women get a free pass in the longevity game.

Who Really Has the Best Deal? There’s a Surprise. . .

Steven N. Austad, Ph.D., scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research, delved into this very topic in his book Why We Age: What Science is Discovering About the Body’s Journey Through Life. “Even though women live a lot longer, they get many more chronic diseases than men do,” he says. “So late in life, women tend to be less healthy than men. Men, they fall apart and that’s it.”

Although many studies of people past the age of 100 show three or four women for every man, the same is not true for the healthy centenarians. Among those folks, the ratio is one to one.

Research conducted at King’s College4 explored the growing centenarian trend in the UK. They found that while women were far more likely to reach 100 than men, males tended to be healthier and had fewer diagnosed chronic illnesses compared to women.

Men who did make it to the 100-year mark also experienced fewer disabilities such as fractures, incontinence and loss of hearing or vision compared to women.

In short, men who live past 100 are more likely to dodge the chronic disease bullet than women. On the flip side, women seem to endure their long-term medical problems better.

The Mystery of Aging Involves More than Gender

According to Nisha Hazra, lead author of the study, 'We found a surprising number of 100-year-olds who had no major illnesses. However, as the number of people living to 100 continues to increase, it's very important to understand the evolving health care needs of the oldest old.”

Dr. Austad says, “This {study} suggests to me there are differences in our fundamental aging process.” I agree: There’s no doubt that men and women age differently.

However, a variety of other factors contribute to longevity. We’re not the passive victims of our genes. Exercise, weight, healthy eating, quality sleep, connections with other people, your general engagement with the world, your willingness to use the health system to identify and solve your health problems early – and many other variables – make you the captain of your own ship.

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