It turns out that women have not always lived longer than men.  A new study supported by the United States National Institute on Aging reveals that the trend only began during the turn of the 20th century.

For many, 1900 was a time of urbanisation and fast-moving technological change.  Access to electricity, automobiles, and indoor plumbing was not widespread, but they were just around the corner.  In the United States, life expectancy averages were just 46.3 for men and 48.3 for women, largely due to child mortality.

Today, across the European Union life expectancy is 75.3 years on average for men and 81.7 years on average for women. French women (85.0 years) and Swedish men (79.4 years) have the longest life spans, according to OECD data.  This fascinating chart also shows healthy life expectancy (as in how many years you can expect to function healthily in different countries).  Australia and New Zealand just scrape into the top ten and Japanese people remain healthy for the longest.

This new study, led by University of California Davis researchers in the School of Gerontology, examined the life spans of people born between 1800 and 1935 in 13 developed nations.  As medical advances and positive health behaviours were adopted during the 1800s and early 1900s, death rates fell, but women gained longevity at a much faster rate. The study found that heart disease is the most likely cause of lower life expectancy in adult men than in adult women over the age of 40. 

“I was very surprised when I looked at the divergence as we got closer to the 1900s. The common belief was that this pattern would be there even in the 1800s, but it wasn’t,” explained lead study author Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez. “Since our biology hasn’t changed over the last one hundred years, we realized there must be some other reason that men are dying at higher rates.”   USC University Professor and AARP Professor of Gerontology Eileen Crimmins further commented that “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.”

Heart disease causes 25% of deaths in the United States and is the leading cause of death. Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease, heart attacks and stroke, accounts for nearly half (47%) of all deaths in Europe.  In New Zealand it accounts for 30% of all deaths.  Medical experts have found that women typically develop heart disease 10 years later than men. It is still the number one killer of women, but they seem to develop it a decade later on average.  Men are also more likely than women to have sudden cardiac events, with half having no prior symptoms.

Leading explanations for the reason women live longer include biological, social structural, and behavioural factors. Studies suggest that estrogen helps protect women against heart disease by reducing circulatory levels of harmful cholesterol, whereas testosterone increases low-density lipoprotein. Women also have stronger immune systems. However, biology alone can not explain the gender difference in mortality, especially since it differs substantially over time and across nations. Practically, behavioural factors are the most important thing for us all to concentrate on.

So what can we all do to stay healthy?  You might like to start with the following fairly well-known advice:

1. Don’t smoke or use tobacco – something we all now know has a number of health risks (although I might note here that my husband finds it funny that smoking is the great evil of the 21st century while we are become steadily more tolerant of so many other worse things!)

2. Exercise for 30 – 60 minutes on most days of the week – this can include consequential exercise such as housework!

3. Eat a heart-healthy diet as free as possible of trans-fats


While there is always the question of whether a life well-lived for others is more important than a strictly preserved healthy one, there are easy things we can all do every day to make the most of our health.  The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...