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Why do women have longer lives than men?

Annie Cardone (2022-04-19)

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. What is the reason women live longer than men in the present, and why has this advantage increased in the past? We only have partial evidence and the evidence is not sufficient to reach an absolute conclusion. While we are aware that there are behavioral, biological and environmental variables which all play a part in women who live longer than males, it isn't clear how much each one contributes.

We know that women are living longer than men, regardless of weight. But it is not due to the fact that certain non-biological factors have changed. What are these changing factors? Some are well known and relatively straightforward, like the fact that men smoke more often. Certain are more complicated. 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 above the line of parity diagonally. This implies that a baby girl in all countries can expect to live longer than her younger brother.

Interestingly, this chart shows that, while the advantage for women exists in all countries, difference between countries is huge. In Russia, women live 10 years longer than males. In Bhutan the difference is less than half a calendar year.

In the richer countries, the female advantage in longevity was smaller
Let's now look at how the advantage of women in longevity has changed over time. The chart below shows gender-based and female-specific life expectancy at birth in the US in the years 1790-2014. Two points stand out.

The first is that there is an upward trend. Both men as well as women in the US live much, much longer than they did 100 years ago. This is in line with historical increases in life expectancy everywhere in the world.

Second, there's an increasing gap: The female advantage in terms of life expectancy used be very modest but it increased substantially in the past century.

When you click on the option "Change country' on the chart, determine if these two points are applicable to the other countries with available information: Sweden, France and the UK.