DEAR DOCTOR K: I’ve heard that women tend to live longer than men. Why is that?
DEAR READER: On average, women do live about five years longer than men. In the United States, 57 percent of all who are ages 65 and older are female. By age 85, 67 percent are women. You can see this for yourself in most nursing homes or assisted living facilities in the United States: Women usually outnumber men, and the magnitude of the difference is often striking.
The ratio of men to women is roughly equal in young adulthood. So why does the ratio start to favor women over time? Among the most powerful factors are that men tend to:
– Take bigger risks. The part of the brain that controls judgment and consideration of an action’s consequences develops more slowly in boys and young men than in their female counterparts. This likely contributes to the fact that far more boys and men die in accidents or due to violence. This tendency toward lack of judgment and consideration of consequences may also contribute to harmful lifestyle decisions among young men. Smoking or drinking to excess are two examples.
I feel obliged to state that this impulsivity, explosive personality and lack of judgment in younger members of my gender completely goes away by the time we become mature adults. Except when it doesn’t.
– Have more dangerous jobs. Men far outnumber women in some of the riskiest occupations. These include military combat, firefighting and working at construction sites.
– Die of heart disease more often and at a younger age. Men are 50 percent more likely than women to die of heart disease, although women start dying more frequently of heart disease after they reach their mid-60s.
– Commit suicide more often than women. Depression is considered more common among women, and depression does cause some people to attempt suicide. Men are less likely to seek care for depression and mental illness. And when men attempt suicide, it is much more likely to be fatal. More than three times as many men die from suicide than women.
– Be less socially connected. People with fewer and weaker social connections (including men) tend to have higher death rates.
– Avoid doctors. Men are far more likely to skip routine health screens and are far less likely than women to have seen a doctor of any kind during the previous year.
Studies in animals indicate that the females tend to have stronger immune systems. This means they are less likely to die of infections. (However, it also makes them more likely to develop autoimmune diseases.) Whether this is a reason why women live longer than men is less clear.
There’s not much that can be done about some of these factors. But others are modifiable. For example, getting men to report symptoms (including depression) and regularly see a doctor for chronic medical problems could counter some of the tendency for them to die younger.
It’s also worth noting that the survival gap between men and women reflects an average tendency among large numbers of people. Obviously, and unfortunately, sometimes wives die before their husbands. But what you’ve heard is generally true: In the U.S. and other developed nations, women live longer than men.
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.
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