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It’s pretty common knowledge that women live longer than men, not just in the UK but across the world. The latest report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has women’s life expectancy at 82.9 years, with men trailing behind at 79.2 years. Life expectancy varies country to country and alters every few years, generally taking an upwards trajectory as advances in health and medicine decrease mortality infant rates and battle life threatening illnesses.
The ONS has recorded average life expectancies since the mid 1800s, and women have always lead the gap, although it stretched to over six years’ difference in the 1970s. This isn’t a gap that’s just noticed in Britain. According to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) 2015 data, women live longer in all countries except for Mali and Eswatini (Swaziland). Even more impressively, a report by Duke University of North Carolina showed that women lived longer during times of famine, measles outbreaks and on slave plantations.
Despite it being a well known and consistent difference, scientists aren’t totally certain why women outlive men. There are several suspected reasons:
For a while, it was believed that lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking, unhealthy eating and high pressure jobs were the causes behind men living shorter lives than women. However, men and women’s lifestyles are now more similar than ever, but the gap hasn’t disappeared to reflect this.
A huge amount of the differences between men and women come from one place - testosterone. Men’s increased levels of testosterone can lead to more risk taking and dangerous behaviours. For example, men account for 74% of road traffic deaths in the UK, and 57% of pedestrian casualties. In 2017, men made up around two thirds of deaths due to illegal drug use, according to the ONS.
So, what happens when you remove testosterone from the equation? You look at a longer life.
Han-Nam Park, a Korean scientist, analysed records of court life from the 19th century. He found that eunuchs, who had their testicles removed before they were 15, lived around 20 years longer than the other men.
The same results were drawn from another small and unfortunate sample - American male institutionalised mental health patients from the 20th century. Some of the patients were forcibly castrated as part of their alleged treatment.
Those who were castrated before turning 15 were, like the eunuchs, found to live longer. But there was no change found among those castrated later in life. This age division suggests that testosterone’s life shortening effects will have already had their impact by 15, but there’s not much more evidence to support this theory.
This division suggests that testosterone’s life shortening effects will have already had their impact by the time men turn 15.
Women have two X chromosomes, whereas men have X and Y chromosomes. In short, this means that women have a double of every gene. When one gene gets damaged or diseased, women have a back up, but men don’t.
Men are half as likely to go to the doctor than women, men make up three quarters of suicides in the UK and are less likely to seek help for a mental health problem. Society has conditioned men to not speak up about mental or physical health concerns - and it’s one of the reason men are likely to die younger.
Slowly but surely, the gap seems to be closing. Although hormonal and DNA factors can’t be changed, societal and healthcare factors are doing. Progress is being made to tackle and prevent against heart disease, road traffic accidents are falling, and people are consuming less alcohol and tobacco. So, when are we likely to see the gap close? It might not be too long - maybe as close as 2032.
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