Why do women live longer than men?

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 makes women live more than men do today and how does this benefit increase in the past? The evidence is sketchy and we only have some answers. We know that behavioral, biological and environmental factors all play a role in the fact that women live longer than men; but we don’t know exactly how strong the relative contribution of each one of these factors is.

Independently of the exact weight, we know that at least part of the reason women live longer than men in the present and not previously, has to do with the fact that several important non-biological aspects have changed. These factors are changing. Some are well known and relatively straightforward, like the fact that men smoke more often. Some are more complex. 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. It is clear that all countries are over the diagonal line of parity. This implies that a baby girl in all countries can anticipate to live longer than her older brother.

The chart above shows that while the female advantage exists in all countries, difference between countries is huge. In Russia women are 10 years older than men, while in Bhutan the gap is less than half an hour.



In countries with high incomes, the longevity advantage for women was smaller

Let’s look at how female longevity advantage has changed over time. The chart below illustrates the male and female life expectancies at the time of birth in the US between 1790-2014. Two points stand out.

First, there is an upward trend. Both men and women in the US live a lot, 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 a widening gap: The female advantage in terms of life expectancy used be quite small however it increased dramatically during the last century.

If you select the option “Change country’ on the chart, you will be able to check that these two points apply to the other countries with available information: Sweden, France and the UK.

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