Conventional Wisdom Overturned—Women Age Faster Than Men—Men Still Die Younger

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The life expectancy of women is longer than that of men. In fact, in more primitive times women tended to die sooner than men due to the dangers of childbirth and discrimination in the allocation of resources (that is, families often gave more food and medical attention to boys than to girls). One sign that a society is becoming more modern is when women begin to outlve men.

In any case, the life expectancy of women in all developed economies is significantly longer than that of men. In the U.S. one half of women can expect to live to age 80.1 whereas half of men will make it to 74.8—a difference in 5.3 years. One hypothesis to explain this difference is that men age faster than women.

Now researchers from Northern Michigan University writing in the American Journal of Human Biology argue that that hypothesis is wrong. So if men don't age faster, what does bump guys off more quickly than gals? A bit of the explanation is captured in that old joke about what are a redneck's last words? "Hey, y'all watch this!" (Before anyone accuses me of dissing rednecks, I just want to point out that I grew up on a dairy farm in Appalachia.) According to the press release describing the research:

"While men may die earlier on average, much of the difference in mortality rates is due to factors other than physiological decline caused by the aging process," [Brent] Graves [one of the NMU researchers] said. "Males engage in more risk-taking behaviors, which are reflected in much higher death rates—three times those of females in the 15-25-year age group—due to accidents and violence. There is also the physiological cost of testosterone, which suppresses the immune system and results in higher death rates among males due to infectious diseases and cancer.

The deleterious effects of testosterone came up last week during the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference on human enhancement in which I was participating last week. At the conference Michael Rose, an anti-aging researcher at the Univesity of California at Irvine who has bred fruit flies to live 3 times longer than usual, noted that castration may increase a guy's lifespan. Somehow I don't think that that particular longevity treatment is likely to catch on.

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  1. Well, biologically speaking, is there any reason for most of us to live past forty? Sure one can see a reason for say a few individuals in each group to live past forty (as “wise elder” types); but what is the evolutionary benefit beyond that (in the hunter-gatherer societies we used to live in)?

  2. Disclosure: Ron Bailey is a man, though he occasionally donates dollar bills to local strippers, who are women.

  3. Before anyone accuses me of dissing rednecks

    In the interest of full disclosure, do you place any stock in Jeff Foxworthy?

  4. PL,

    My guess is that in hunter-gatherer societies, most people did/do not live much past forty. Our much-higher life expectancy is, as you know, due more to technology than to genetics.

  5. Men engage in more risk-taking behaviors. Agreed. Men also almost completely dominate the risk-taking careers (like shooting at other men, for instance). I would be quite surprised if there is any significant difference left after you account for these two minor factoids.

  6. The deleterious effects of testosterone

    I was not aware of these. Great; not only do I get to have a hairy ass, but I get to die sooner too.

  7. Women’s longevity may be the residual effects of natural selection. After being treated unequally for so many generations, only genes that supported healthier, longer-lived women survived.

  8. Hey, at least the hairy ass thing is curable.

  9. Don’t discount the fact that women feel the need to stay in shape to attract men, while men seem to think they look good with beer bellies.

  10. Don’t discount the fact that women feel the need to stay in shape to attract men, while men seem to think they look good with beer bellies.

    I think you meant to say single women.

  11. A bit of the explanation is captured in that old joke about what are a redneck’s last words? “Hey, y’all watch this!”

    I take offence. Especially since everyone knows that a true redneck’s last words are, “Hold my beer.”

  12. (Before anyone accuses me of dissing rednecks, I just want to point out that I grew up on a dairy farm in Appalachia.)

    I’m not sure why but statements like this are really annoying. And I don’t think any rednecks would have been offended by what was said.

  13. guess i was wrong

  14. …castration may increase a guy’s lifespan. Somehow I don’t think that that particular longevity treatment is likely to catch on.

    No problem, just make it mandatory after, say 40.
    The risk of producing malformed sperm is much too great above that age anyway. Should be no problem to get the CDC, Gonzales and others of that ilk behind that. After all, it’s for the children, right?

    Only slightly cynical on this Monday..

  15. “Hey, ya’ll, watch this!” might be the last words preceding one death.

    But two more deaths are preceded by “Aw, shucks, that don’t look so hard!”

  16. A bit of the explanation is captured in that old joke about what are a redneck’s last words? “Hey, y’all watch this!” (Before anyone accuses me of dissing rednecks, I just want to point out that I grew up on a dairy farm in Appalachia.)

    I take this as a confession that you participated in your share of backwoods hijinks….

  17. Well, biologically speaking, is there any reason for most of us to live past forty? Sure one can see a reason for say a few individuals in each group to live past forty (as “wise elder” types); but what is the evolutionary benefit beyond that (in the hunter-gatherer societies we used to live in)?

    parents have a habbit of dying and 50 year old grandpaerents can do a good job of raising grandchildren…or at least helping with collage if the parents don’t die…anyway hitler and marx arn’t the only one who got evolution comletely wrong…thier tradition lives on here at hit and run

  18. Perhaps another reason women live longer than men is that they don’t have wives.

  19. No, the actual last words are “Hey, hold my beer and watch this!”

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