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The Gender Gap in Aging — Do Men or Women Age Faster?

We know that women live longer than men on average. It’s known as the “gender gap.” But what are the reasons behind the gender gap? Does it mean that men age faster than women, or is there more to this statistic than meets the eye? In this post, we’ll explore the science behind longevity!

Life expectancy, gender, and race

old man and woman

In the U.S., the average life expectancy at birth is 78.8 years (as of 2020). However there are a number of statistical differences between how the genders age. The average man’s life expectancy is only 75.1 years, whereas the average woman can expect to live 80.5. There are slightly more women than men in the U.S., which is why the average is a little higher than the halfway point between these two ages.

Gender isn't the only factor that affects aging. Race also plays an important role. The average Hispanic woman can expect to live 83.3 years, while the average Black man only lives to 68.3. That’s because how long we live has a lot to do with how well we live. Socioeconomic factors have a significant impact on longevity. If you have infrequent access to a doctor when you’re growing up, or end up working a labor-intensive job, you’re less likely to live as long as somebody who has routine preventative medical care and a less taxing occupation.

However across the board, men have shorter average lifespans than women.

RACE

TOTAL POPULATION

MEN

WOMEN

All races

77.8 years

75.1 years

80.5 years

White

78 years

75.5 years

80.6 years

Hispanic

79.9 years

76.6 years

83.3 years

Black

72 years

68.3 years

75.8 years

Source: “Expectation of life by age, Hispanic origin, race for the non-Hispanic population, and sex: United States, 2020,” The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) 

It seems to make sense that men must age faster than women if they consistently die younger. But is that really the case, or can the gender gap be explained by the difference between male and female lifestyles?

How lifestyle affects longevity

young man drinking alcohol driving

If we look at the top ten causes of death for men and women in the U.S., there are a couple of obvious differences. Unintentional injuries are the third leading cause of death among men, but the sixth among women. Men are dying in accidents at a rate of almost two-to-one compared with women.

#

MEN

WOMEN

1

Heart disease (24.2%)

Heart disease (21.8%)

2

Cancer (21.9%)

Cancer (20.7%)

3

Unintentional injury (7.6%)

Chronic lower respiratory disease (6.2%)

4

Chronic lower respiratory disease (5.2%)

Stroke (6.2%)

5

Stroke (4.3%)

Alzheimer’s disease (6.1%)

6

Diabetes (3.2%)

Unintentional injury (4.4%)

7

Alzheimer’s disease (2.6%)

Diabetes (2.7%)

8

Suicide (2.6%)

Influenza and pneumonia (2.1%)

9

Influenza and pneumonia (1.8%)

Kidney disease (1.8%)

10

Chronic liver disease (1.8%)

Septicemia (1.6%)

Source: Leading Causes of Death – Females & Males – All races and origins – United States, 2017, CDC

The definition of an unintentional injury is one that occurs rapidly and was not the result of somebody attempting to cause harm. The leading causes of unintentional injuries are ​​motor vehicle crashes, falls, fires and burns, drowning, poisonings and aspirations.

There are more female drivers than male licensed in the U.S., so it’s not as simple as saying there are more men driving cars to get into accidents. However statistics show that men drive more miles than women, and are more likely to engage in aggressive or risky driving behavior, including speeding, drink driving, and not wearing a seatbelt.

Here therefore we can see lifestyle factors affecting national longevity statistics. Men choose to engage in more high-risk behavior, and many more men than women die as a result. This in turn reduces the predicted lifespan of all men on a national scale.

Another instance where this pattern plays out is in a different cause of death — suicide. Men are over 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women. The highest suicide rate is in middle-aged white males, and the high rate at which men kill themselves (about 20 per 100,000) affects national longevity statistics.

The gender gap in natural causes of death

doctor talking to older woman in hospital bed

But what about diseases and illnesses? If we exclude some lifestyle factors that affect longevity statistics, do men still appear to age faster than women?

We know that the top two causes of death in the U.S. are heart disease and cancer. Men are more likely to die of both of these causes than women, although that can be explained, in part, by the higher number of women in the general population. However lifestyle still plays a role in longevity and disease.

Men are more likely than women to get cancer. About one in two men will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes, compared with one in three women. Scientists theorized that one of the reasons for this was men were more likely to be exposed to cancer-causing substances (carcinogens). Men historically smoked more than women, and worked in heavy industries where carcinogens were common. But even after women began smoking and working in factories at the same rate as men, the cancer rate didn’t change.

Even in childhood, male infants are more likely to develop leukemia than female children. This suggests the risk of developing cancer isn’t higher in men because — or just because — of lifestyle factors. Something genetic is going on.

The likely cause is in our genes. Specifically a gene in the X chromosome, which is responsible for suppressing tumors. Men only have one X chromosome, and therefore one copy of the gene. Women have two, giving them twice the cancer-fighting genetics.

This explains why men are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than women, but once again lifestyle plays a role in longevity. Men are also more likely to die from cancer than women, and have lower five-year survival rates following a diagnosis.  In the below chart are some common types of cancer, and the ratio of male-to-female deaths. For lip cancer, 5.51 men die for every single woman who dies. For lung cancer, 2.31 men die for every female death, and so on.

CANCER TYPE

MALE DEATHS

FEMALE DEATHS

Lip cancer

5.51

1

Larynx

5.37

1

Throat

4.47

1

Bladder

3.36

1

Lung

2.31

1

Colorectal

1.42

1

Pancreatic

1.37

1

Source: “The Cancer Gender Gap,” Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention

For almost every type of cancer, men died at a much higher rate than women. Only three cancers were more likely to kill women than men — gallbladder cancer, anal cancer, and cancer affecting the abdominal wall membrane.

In part, different screening methods may explain this gender gap. Men who regularly undergo prostate exams will probably be diagnosed with anal cancer faster than women. But that points us to another lifestyle factor affecting longevity — men don’t go to the doctor as often as women.

According to data from the CDC, women are a third more likely to visit their physician regularly, and are twice as reliable at keeping routine screening appointments. The top three reasons men cite for not going to the doctor more often are:

  • Too busy
  • Afraid of finding something seriously wrong
  • Tests are uncomfortable/embarrassing

Despite this, it typically takes women 2.5 years longer to receive the same cancer diagnosis as men. The fact women have better survival rates despite later diagnoses suggests several possibilities. Perhaps cancer advances more slowly in women than in men. Or perhaps women recognize the danger of milder symptoms and begin seeking medical help far earlier. There may even be a difference in how early-stage cancer presents between men and women.

Researchers are still examining why women have better cancer survival rates, despite having a harder time getting diagnosed. The reason for that extra 2.5 years? Studies consistently show that doctors ignore female pain, and most medical knowledge focuses on white men as a universal model, meaning many symptoms that women and people of color exhibit often get ignored.

Genetics vs. lifestyle and longevity

multigenerational family

When it comes to how we age, and how long we can hope to live, both our genetics and our lifestyles play important roles. Our genetics might predispose us to lung cancer, but smoking is a lifestyle choice that puts us at greater risk.

Separating these factors is almost impossible, so there’s no easy way to determine if men really do age faster than women, or if the reason for men’s reduced longevity is purely down to lifestyle. One study of 44 countries found that every single one reported excess deaths in men under 45, and those excess deaths were largely attributed to lifestyle choices. Of the six avoidable causes of death reviewed in the study — accidents, suicide, cancer, circulatory diseases, homicide, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis — men were twice as likely to die as women. For some causes, such as accidents, that number was 4.7 times higher.

How others influence our longevity

two doctors example patient xray

It’s also almost impossible to separate the actions of others from these calculations. As we’ve seen, it takes women longer to have serious health conditions taken seriously. The medical establishment can miss many symptoms of serious disease in women because their models are based on men.

A prime example of this is heart attacks. We’re all taught to beware sudden heavy chest pains and shooting pains down the left arm. However women don’t always experience these symptoms. In women, heart attacks are just as likely to present with lower chest or abdominal pain that is easily mistaken for acid reflux, jaw pain, and breathlessness.

It isn’t just women who lose out when it comes to medical treatment either. Most doctors learn how symptoms present on white skin, which can create worse outcomes for people of color. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, this became obvious. When hospitals became overrun, a common triage question to consider before sending a patient to the ER was “Is the skin on their face and lips turning blue?” But Black people rarely display this symptom, and pulse oximetry tools are also less effective on Black skin.

This resulted in the severity of sickness in Black people being underestimated, and those communities suffered worse outcomes. People of color are 3-4 times more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 as white people, and 2-3 times more likely to die.

Reaching a conclusion

elderly couple

So do men age faster than women? The truth is, it’s impossible to say. So many factors affect our longevity, from our genetics and individual choices, to the choices made for us by other people in society.

Certainly women do have some advantages over men when it comes to longevity — having double the tumor-suppressor genes, for a start. And women are less likely to engage in risky behaviours that increase the chances of dying prematurely. On a national scale, these factors collectively give women a longer life expectancy than men. But on an individual basis, your longevity is as much about the choices that you make as what’s in your genetics.

Making healthy choices, such as eating a balanced diet, not drinking to excess, and avoiding smoking, can all keep your cells younger. These choices also reduce your exposure to oxidative stress and mutations that can ultimately lead to cancer.

Remember you may be genetically susceptible to cancer — or genetically resistant to it — but it’s your lifestyle that truly puts you at risk. As an individual, this is the best way to take control of your longevity and plan for a long, healthy life.

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