Do women have an advantage over men when it comes to good health? When you compare the average life span of men versus women, women live, on average, five years longer than their male counterparts. Interestingly, women have a lower mortality rate at all ages and that goes all the way back to the womb where male fetuses have a higher mortality rate than female fetuses in utero. This applies to all species of animals with the exception of birds. It’s clear that women have an advantage when it comes to longevity – so are women really the healthier sex?
Men versus Women: Which is the Healthier Sex?
According to Dr. Engler, M.D. from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Maryland, women have a more robust immune response to protect them against infection. There are some drawbacks to having an aggressive immune response though. Women are at greater risk for autoimmune diseases where their immune system attacks healthy tissue. In fact, almost 80% of people who suffer from autoimmune disease are female. Some of the most common autoimmune that women get more frequently include autoimmune thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and systemic lupus erythematosus.
According to Harvard Men’s Health Watch, men experience more chronic diseases than women and develop them at an earlier age. Heart disease is an example. Men are at greater risk for heart disease, at least until women reach menopause, but, according to the American Heart Association, women have had a higher death rate from heart disease than men since the mid 1980s, possibly because women are less likely to be diagnosed than men and may not get timely treatment due to the misconception that heart disease is a man’s disease. More women than men have strokes on a yearly basis, although this may be because women live longer than men.
What about high blood pressure – a risk factor for heart disease? More men than women have high blood pressure up until the age of 45. It then equals out until the age of 65 when women actually have higher rates of hypertension. At one time, women had higher rates of type 2 diabetes but rates have now evened out.
In the cases of many chronic diseases like kidney disease, cancer, and lung disease, men have a higher death rate than women. One reason may be that men are more likely to smoke and have higher rates of substance abuse than women. There are also dietary differences. Women are more likely to “eat their veggies” while there’s still a tendency for men to follow a “meat and potatoes” diet.
Men are also more likely to engage in risky behavior. Not surprisingly, this puts them at greater risk for premature death due to accidents. They’re also less likely to see their doctor regularly and get screening tests to pick up diseases early when they’re most curable. Seems that women are more likely to “do the right thing” when it comes to caring for their health.
What Role Do Genes and Hormones Play?
Women may have a genetic advantage when it comes to staying healthy. Women have two X chromosomes while men have an X and a Y chromosome. The Y chromosome is smaller and carries fewer genes. If a woman has a “bad” gene on one of her X chromosomes, there may be a normal gene to balance it on the other X chromosome. With the Y chromosome being smaller, men may not have a healthy gene to balance a bad one.
Hormones may also partially explain health differences between women and men. Women have a lower risk of heart disease than men up until menopause due to the protective effects of estrogen. They also have higher levels of HDL – cholesterol, the type that offers protection against heart disease. Estrogen levels drop after menopause, and women lose that protective effect and develop heart disease at rates that are similar to men’s. In fact, women have a one in three chance of developing heart disease over a lifetime. Men have higher levels of testosterone, a hormone that may predispose them to risky behaviors, thereby increasing their risk of death due to accidents or violence.
Gender, Health, and Longevity: The Bottom Line?
Overall, life expectancy has climbed in the past half-century. Just before 2007, the average life expectancy for a female was 71 years and 66 years for men. In 2007 that rose to 80 years for women and 75 for men. Despite this, there’s still a 5-year longevity gap between men and women. Although genetics may be a factor, men are still less likely to eat a healthy diet, to smoke and take excessive risks. They’re also less likely to get regular health screenings and preventative care. Lifestyle matters and more women make the effort to live a healthy one. Keep doing the right things!
MedPage Today. “Are Women Really the Healthier Sex?”
Am J Pathol. 2008 September; 173(3): 600-609.
Harvard Men’s Health Watch. “Mars vs. Venus: The gender gap in health”
American Heart Association. “Women and Cardiovascular Diseases”
Diabetologia. 2001 Jan;44(1):3-15.
Cardiovascular Research. “Risk factors for coronary heart disease: implications of gender”
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