Study on life expectancy: men do not live shorter than women

Women have a higher average life expectancy.

Study on life expectancy: men do not live shorter than women

Women have a higher average life expectancy. Nevertheless, men have a good chance of living even longer than women, a Danish study finds - if they belong to the right social group.

Women live longer than men: A Danish study puts this long-held claim into perspective. Accordingly, the average life expectancy is far too rough a measure that obscures the view of deviations from the mean. In fact, men who are married and those who have college degrees, for example, are likely to live even longer than women.

According to the Federal Statistical Office, the average life expectancy in Germany in 2021 was 83.2 years for newborn girls and 78.2 years for newborn boys. Such a difference between the sexes does not only apply to Germany. According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), men die on average four years earlier than women.

Various explanations are given as the reason for this discrepancy: Sometimes genetic advantages of women are seen as crucial, then again environmental or behavioral factors - for example that men tend to live unhealthier lives or go to the doctor less often.

The starting point of such analyzes is usually a comparison of life expectancy, i.e. the average lifespan. However, this is a greatly simplified measure, write scientists from the University of Southern Denmark in Odense in the journal "BMJ Open". However, this measure does not take into account variations in lifespans between the sexes.

To get a fuller picture, the team relies on a different approach -- so-called survival statistics. They examined gender differences in mortality in 199 countries over a period of about 200 years.

Findings: "Although life expectancy for men is generally lower than that for women, and mortality among men is higher across all age groups, men have a significant chance of outliving women," writes Marie-Pier Bergeron-Boucher's group . She even cites a few examples of countries where men were at times more than 50 percent likely to live longer than women: Iceland in the late 20th century, Jordan and Iran in the 1950s, or Bhutan from 1995 to 2010.

In general, however, the probability that men will live longer than women fluctuated between 25 and 50 percent in almost all years and populations examined. In other words, over the past 200 years, one in four men (25 to 50 percent) lived longer than women.

This means that the majority of women are still older than men, the authors write: "But the minority that doesn't do this is not small." By far not all men live shorter lives than women, which is overlooked in pure comparisons of life expectancy. The difference in life expectancy is also based on the fact that a small part of the male population in many places only lives for a very short time. "For example, in most countries, young boys die more than young girls," the study said.

In fact, survival statistics paint a more complex picture than a mere comparison of average life expectancies. Data from the USA show that variations can be caused by external factors: there, between 2015 and 2019, the probability that men would live longer than women was 40 percent. However, the analysis shows that men with a lower level of education and unmarried men had a particularly low chance of surviving a wife. Married men and those with college degrees, on the other hand, tended to live longer than women who were unmarried or had no high school diploma.

The team emphasizes that lifespan length is the result of an individual complex combination of biological, environmental and behavioral factors. "While being male or female affects life expectancy, it is not the only determinant contributing to inequalities."

A differentiated view is all the more important: "These results refute the general impression that 'men do not live as long as women' and reveal a more nuanced inequality in the life expectancy of women and men." The blanket statement that half of the population is disadvantaged by gender differences in life expectancy is misleading: "The inequalities are more complex." Efforts to reduce lifespan discrepancies would therefore need to target different factors, causes and age groups.

(This article was first published on Wednesday, August 03, 2022.)

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