Gender significantly affects life expectancy. According to the World Health Organization, the global average life expectancy at birth was 73 years in 2019, with women living an average of 75.6 years and men living an average of 70.8 years. So women live about 4.8 years longer than men. Men also die more frequently than women form certain causes of death. Specifically, compared to women, men are 63% more likely to die from suicide, 48% more likely to die from motor vehicle accident, 42% more likely to die from drug overdose, 31% more likely to die from liver diseases, 26% more likely to die from diabetes, 22% more likely to die from cardiovascular diseases, 21% more likely to die from a fall, 21% more likely to die from influenza and pneumonia, 21% more likely to die from kidney diseases, 18% more likely to die from cancer, 11% more likely to die from septicemia and 10% more likely to die from chronic lower respiratory diseases. On the other hand, compared to men, women are 14 % more likely to die from Alzheimer’s disease. This is mainly because women live longer than men and the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia, increases with advancing age. Below are the factors that explain the gender disparity in life expectancy.
Women have two X chromosomes. That is, they have a backup copy of the 23rd chromosomes, which helps if one is defective.1 Men do not have this back-up copy of the X chromosome. Instead, they have a Y chromosome which contain genes that code for proteins involved in the male phenotype. Some of those proteins are responsible for the production of an instrumental hormone: testosterone. One may argue that testosterone is the main reason why men have a shorter life expectancy than women.
Women have lower levels of testosterone. During fetal development, Testosterone is responsible for primary sexual development and the differentiation between male and female physiology.2 From puberty onward, men have circulating testosterone levels exceeding 15-fold that of women at any age.3 High testosterone levels are associated with male characteristics (hair pattern, voice tone, muscle mass and strength, circulating hemoglobin) but also with a higher risk of heart diseases and a higher propensity for risk-taking. Men’s penchant for risk inevitably contributes to their lower life expectancy.
Healthy lifestyle is a proven way to extend life expectancy.4 Men are more likely to engage in poor lifestyle choices such as smoking, heavy drinking, drug use and not wearing seat belts. They are also more likely to take part in dangerous activities like extreme sports and reckless driving. Women, on the other hand, tend to have a healthier lifestyle that includes regular physical activity, stress management, good diet, adequate sleep, positive social relationship, no smoking and minimal binge drinking, which improves their life expectancy.
The fact that men are able-bodied and prone to risk-taking makes them more likely to have occupations that carry a higher risk of injury or death. For example, men are more likely than women to occupy position in construction, mining, firefighting and law enforcement. Men also engage in military conflicts more frequently than women. Specifically, men represent 90% of active military worldwide. As such, men are exposed to higher degree of hazards than women which is reflected in their lower life expectancy.
Women are more likely to seek out preventive healthcare and have regular checkups than men. This leads to earlier detection and treatment of health issues which improves clinical outcomes and life expectancy. For example, women are more likely than men to experience depression but men are more likely to die from suicide as they are less likely to seek help for mental health issues.5 Men are also less likely to seek help when they notice other tell-tale signs of doom. Like when they stop hearing clearly, when they feel chest pain or when they see blood in their urine. The reason why men are less likely to seek help is related to societal, cultural and psychological factors. Simply put, men have big egos and their sense of self-importance is threatened by the action of asking for help.
The fact that women live longer represents an evolutionary advantage for the species 6. That is because women are the primary caregivers for children and grandchildren. The fact that women live long lives means that their children and grandchildren receive better care for a longer time. The progenies life expectancy is thus increased and their genes are more likely to be passed on to subsequent generations. Men too, are important to the prosperity of their genes. Men also increase the life expectancy of their progeny by being providers, companions, protectors, models, moral guides, teachers and breadwinners in families. However, men’s impact on their progeny’s life expectancy is lesser than women’s.
Gender certainly has an impact on life expectancy but many of the factors that contribute to men’s early death are environmental and subject to will-power. That is, men’s predisposition to death is determined by their gender but more significantly by their lifestyle choices. Indeed, factors like alcohol use, tobacco use, physical activity and sleep, have a bigger impact on life expectancy than gender. Youlldie allows to visualize how gender interacts with other factors like race, world region, income, education, alcohol, tobacco, physical activity, sleep, blood pressure, body mass index and family history to statistically predict life expectancy.
- Sharon Moalem, The Better Half: On the Genetic Superiority of Women, 2020
- Nassar GN, Leslie SW. Physiology, Testosterone. 2023 Jan 2, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526128/
- Handelsman DJ, Hirschberg AL, Bermon S. Circulating Testosterone as the Hormonal Basis of Sex Differences in Athletic Performance. Endocr Rev. 2018 Oct 1;39(5):803-829. doi: 10.1210/er.2018-00020. PMID: 30010735; PMCID: PMC6391653. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30010735/
- Li Y, Pan A, Wang DD, Liu X, Dhana K, Franco OH, Kaptoge S, Di Angelantonio E, Stampfer M, Willett WC, Hu FB. Impact of Healthy Lifestyle Factors on Life Expectancies in the US Population. Circulation. 2018 Jul 24;138(4):e75. PMID: 29712712; PMCID: PMC6207481. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6207481/
- Sagar-Ouriaghli I, Godfrey E, Bridge L, Meade L, Brown JSL. Improving Mental Health Service Utilization Among Men: A Systematic Review and Synthesis of Behavior Change Techniques Within Interventions Targeting Help-Seeking. Am J Mens Health. 2019 May-Jun;13(3):1557988319857009. doi: 10.1177/1557988319857009. PMID: 31184251; PMCID: PMC6560805.
- Hawkes, K. The grandmother effect. Nature 428, 128–129 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/428128a. https://www.nature.com/articles/428128a#citeas