Around the world, women can expect to live longer than men. Why? And was this always the case?
According to a new study, significant differences in life expectancy between the sexes first emerged as recently as the turn of the 20th century.
As infectious disease prevention, improved diets, and other positive health behaviors were adopted by people born during the 1800s and early 1900s, death rates plummeted, but women began reaping the longevity benefits at a much faster rate.
In the wake of this massive but uneven decrease in mortality, a review of global data points to heart disease as the culprit behind most of the excess deaths documented in adult men, says Eileen Crimmins, professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California School of Gerontology.
“We were surprised at how the divergence in mortality between men and women, which originated as early as 1870, was concentrated in the 50-to-70 age range and faded out sharply after age 80,” Crimmins says.
The study examines the life spans of people born between 1800 and 1935 in 13 developed nations.
Focusing on mortality in adults over the age of 40, the team found that in individuals born after 1880, female death rates decreased 70 percent faster than those of males. Even when the researchers controlled for smoking-related illnesses, cardiovascular disease appeared to still be the cause of the vast majority of excess deaths in adult men over 40 for the same time period.
Surprisingly, smoking accounted for only 30 percent of the difference in mortality between the sexes after 1890, Crimmins says.
The uneven impact of cardiovascular illness-related deaths on men, especially during middle and early older age, raises the question of whether men and women face different heart disease risks due to inherent biological risks and/or protective factors at different points in their lives, says coauthor Caleb Finch, professor in the neurobiology of aging.
“Further study could include analysis of diet and exercise activity differences between countries, deeper examination of genetics and biological vulnerability between sexes at the cell level, and the relationship of these findings to brain health at later ages,” he says.
The National Institute on Aging supported the work, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez of the Center for Demography of Health and Aging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.