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Why do women have longer lives than men?

Randall Patterson (2022-04-18)

Everywhere in the world women live longer than men - but this was not always the case. The available data from rich countries shows that women didn't live longer than men in the 19th century. Why do women live so much longer than men today, and why have these advantages gotten bigger in the past? The evidence is limited and we have only limited solutions. We recognize that biological, behavioral and environmental factors all contribute to the fact that women live longer than men; however, we aren't sure how strong the relative contribution to each of these variables is.

We know that women are living longer than males, regardless of weight. However this isn't due to the fact that certain non-biological factors have changed. The factors changing are numerous. Some are well known and relatively straightforward, like the fact that men smoke more often. Others are more complex. For example, there is evidence that in rich countries the female advantage increased in part because infectious diseases used to affect women disproportionately a century ago, so advances in medicine that reduced the long-term health burden from infectious diseases, especially for survivors, ended up raising women's longevity disproportionately.

Everywhere in the world women tend to live longer than men
The first chart below shows life expectancy at birth for men and women. We can see that all countries are over the diagonal line of parity. This implies that a baby girl in every country can anticipate to live longer than her brothers.

This graph shows that even though women enjoy an advantage across all countries, differences between countries can be substantial. In Russia women have an average of 10 years more than men, while in Bhutan the difference is just half an hour.

The female advantage in life expectancy was smaller in countries with higher incomes than it is today.
We will now examine how the female advantage in terms of longevity has changed over time. The chart below shows gender-based and female-specific life expectancy at the birth in the US between 1790 to 2014. Two points stand out.

First, there is an upward trend. Both men and women in the US are living much, much longer today than a century ago. This is in line with historical increases in life expectancy everywhere in the world.

Second, the gap is growing: Although the female advantage in life expectancy was once very small however, it has grown significantly over time.

Using the option 'Change country in the chart, you can check that these two points are also applicable to the other countries with available data: Sweden, France and the UK.