Why Women Live Longer—It’s Complicated

In Sweden—that backwater—women have outlived men every year since 1751. And it gets worse (or better): in nearly every human society, in every cultural context, women outlive their male counterparts.

This even applies to human societies that aren’t human societies: chimpanzees exhibit a sharply skewed rate of gender mortality, and they’re not the only other species to echo the phenomenon.

Women outliving men is so common it’s become a truism of demography and entered the social sciences as a suitably chilling term, “the female mortality differential.”

The question of precisely why was the subject of a recent talk at UT by Dr. Yang Yang, a visiting sociologist from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has made studying “the female mortality differential” her life’s work.

Yang’s talk synthesized the behavioral and biological factors as an explanation for the total picture of female longevity. The sociologist defended the validity of that “old but powerful theory,” biological components to sex differences, by reasoning that if there were any reproductive benefits to survival, they would taper off after menopause.

Turns out there are. And they do. Estrogen plays a powerful role in stimulating immune responses, and it seems women just have better immune systems in general than men.

But these biological reasons (along with having two sets of the best chromosome and longer telomeres—basically wicks on the candles that are cells) were only part of the story. A large part also comes from the social dimension to health. Men, for example, who don’t attend church are found to have a greater degree of inflammation and its associated risks than men who do, demonstrating the power of one’s mental state over physiology.

Mice, too, that are raised in isolated cells develop more tumors, more immune problems, and live much shorter lives than their more gregarious, socially raised brethren.

Yang also mentioned current research in evolutionary biology asserting that men and woman respond to danger differently: men display the classic fight-or-flight response, while women use a tend-and-befriend strategy less risky in caring for offspring.

The lesson? The immune advantage women receive from estrogen early on makes a big difference—as well as just having more competent immune systems in general. But behavioral differences like social networks really count, though smoking less so.

But can all of this compare to the benefits of testosterone? It’s a tough call. One never knows when a beard might prove absolutely vital.

Creative Commons photo by Ed Yourdon.


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