Gender Gap Dooms Men to Shorter Life Spans

By Larson, Ruth | Insight on the News, June 7, 1999 | Go to article overview

Gender Gap Dooms Men to Shorter Life Spans


Larson, Ruth, Insight on the News


It seems that two X chromosomes are better than one. Women outlive men, despite their vulnerability to conditions such as arthritis, depression and diseases of the immune system.

The ultimate gender gap between men and women doesn't involve pay or promotions to the executive suite. Instead, it concerns a basic fact of life: The average woman will outlive the average man.

For all its successes, medical technology has been unable to close the life-span gap between the sexes. By age 85, women outnumber men by nearly 3 to 1. "Maleness is a biological risk factor" says Estelle Ramey, the biologist who pioneered hormone research.

So why do men die sooner? Women have a biological advantage over men: Females better resist stress and outperform males over the long haul. "The kind of diseases women get tend to be chronic -- they make your life miserable, but they don't kill you," says Anne Stone of the Women's Research and Education Institute. "Men, on the other hand, suffer sudden events that can kill them" such as heart attacks.

The phenomenon of female longevity is universal. Females of the animal kingdom -- whether mice or chimpanzees or elephants -- also tend to live longer than males, according to Marvin Jones, who tracked animal longevity for the San Diego Zoo until his retirement. "All the really old animals are females" he says. "They don't necessarily live that much longer--perhaps a few years -- but it's definitely noticeable."

More specifically, the record-holders for longevity are female animals that never had offspring. In fact, anecdotal evidence indicates that preventing pregnancy in animals extends their life spans, according to Rick Miller, professor of pathology at the University of Michigan. For example, among rats and mice, virgin females live 5 to 10 percent longer than other mice.

In her new book, Just Like a Woman. Dianne Hales argues that the odds favored men for much of history because so many women died during childbirth. In the Middle Ages, for example, just 39 percent of women reached age 40, compared with 57 percent of men. By the end of the 18th century, women began to live longer than men. The longevity gap in 1900 was three years (50.9 years for women vs. 47.9 years for men). In 1950, women outlived men an average of 5.5 years.

Today, the average life expectancy for an American woman born in 1996 is 79.7 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That's nearly six years longer than an American man born in 1996, who can expect to live 73.9 years.

Men's vulnerability begins even before birth. Boys have an X and a Y chromosome, while girls are born with two X chromosomes. Girls' extra X chromosome not only serves as a backup in case of defects in one X chromosome, but it also provides a double dose of factors that regulate the immune system. …

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