For any who still believe that women are the weaker sex, it is long past time for them to think again. With respect to that most essential proof of robustness—the power to stay alive—women are tougher than men from birth through to extreme old age. The average man may run a 100-meter race faster than the average woman and lift heavier weights. But nowadays women outlive men by about five to six years. By age 85 there are roughly six women to every four men. At age 100 the ratio is more than two to one. And by age 122—the current world record for human longevity—the score stands at one-nil in favor of women.
Marianne Legato, MD, professor emerita of clinical medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and founder and director of the Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine cites a number of reasons for the longevity gap.
Females are stronger in utero
Two and a half as many boys are conceived as girls, Dr. Legato says, but they’re so much more likely to succumb to prenatal infection or other issues in the womb that by the time they’re born, the ratio is close to one to one. “They’re also slower to develop physically than girls prenatally, which means they’re more likely to die if they are born premature due to underdeveloped lung or brain development,” Dr. Legato explains.
Women are more risk averse
Unintentional injuries are the third leading cause of death in men, according to the CDC; for women it’s only the sixth. Again, you can blame it on biology: The frontal lobes of the brain—which deal with responsibility and risk calculation—develop much more slowly in males than females, Dr. Legato says. The result: Guys often take many more risks (which you probably already realize if your small son has taken one too many spins off his bike handlebars). “Almost inevitably, a male will take risks that a woman of his same age wouldn’t take,” Dr. Legato says.
Women succumb to heart disease later
Heart disease is the leading killer of both men and women, but men are more likely to develop it—and die from it—as early as their 30s and 40s. Women, on the other hand, typically develop heart disease 10 years later than men. They’re protected from it until menopause, since their bodies churn out estrogen, which helps keep arteries strong and flexible, says Dr. Legato.
Women have stronger social networks
Friends make good medicine: People with strong social connections have a 50% lower chance of dying than those with few social ties, according to a 2010 study at Brigham Young University. “Most men tend to hold their stress and worries close to their chest, while women tend to reach out and talk to others,” Dr. Legato explains. The one exception: married men, which also explains why so many studies show that they’re likely to be healthier and live longer.
Women take better care of their health
Men are 24% less likely than women to have visited a doctor within the past year and are 22% more likely to skip out on cholesterol testing, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. In fact more than a quarter (28%) of men don’t have a regular physician and about one in five didn’t have health insurance in 2012, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. You can blame it on the so-called John Wayne syndrome: “Men often deny illness; they minimize symptoms because they don’t want to go to a doctor and find out something is wrong,” Dr. Legato notes.
Future convergence in longevity?
Although women can currently expect to live longer than men, the gap is closing. Death rates have begun to converge in the past 20 years. Sadly, some researchers attribute the convergence to women taking on the behaviors and stresses formerly considered the domain of males — smoking, drinking, and working outside the home. In this sense, bad habits, rather than improved health practices, may turn out to be the great equalizer.