Why do Life Expectancies Differ for Men and Women?

N. Madison

It is a curious fact that life expectancies differ for men and women. In most developed nations, women outlive men by at least a few years. For example, in the United States, women outlive men by an average of at least five years. Interestingly, women even outlive men in the majority of underdeveloped countries. There are many theories regarding why this is true; they range from medical-related issues to simple stress factors.

Men might suffer more stress from multitasking.
Men might suffer more stress from multitasking.

Some people believe that the differences in the average life expectancies of women and men may result from the fact that men take more physical risks than women do. Around the world, men are more likely to fight in wars, and they often engage in physically risky behaviors at a higher rate. For example, they tend to drive their cars faster, consume more alcohol, and engage more often in illegal drug use. They are also more likely to be thrill seekers, attempting stunts that put their lives at risk.

By middle age, women have much greater life expectancies than men.
By middle age, women have much greater life expectancies than men.

Just looking at one age group can illustrate the differences in life expectancies well. For example, males aged 15 to 24 have a death rate that is four times that of females in the same age range. Some experts believe this is due to the onset of puberty and the bodily changes young adults face. Raging hormones, nicknamed the testosterone storm, are said to be responsible for a high degree of recklessness during this period as well as violence that often leads to death.

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Some theories suggest that childbearing prepares women for handing more stress than men.
Some theories suggest that childbearing prepares women for handing more stress than men.

Following the age of 24, the difference in life expectancies becomes a bit smaller, only to expand again during middle age. Starting at the age of 55, men die more often than women as a result of such things as heart disease, vehicle accidents, and conditions that can be linked to alcohol consumption and smoking. Suicide also plays a major role in the male death rate at this stage.

Health plays a major role in the difference in life expectancies; both men and women develop heart disease, for example. However, studies have shown that men are more likely to develop it at a younger age, and they are also more likely to die from it. Men are more likely to succumb to cancer and stroke as well. Some people attribute these differences to testosterone, which increases harmful cholesterol in the body, in turn increasing a man's risk of heart disease and stroke. In contrast, the female hormone called estrogen acts by lowering harmful cholesterol and helping to increase good cholesterol in the body. Additionally, the use of estrogen treatment following menopause may further help to lower heart disease and stroke risk in women.

Evidence also suggests that men have greater difficulty in dealing with psychological stress than women do, and some people theorize that childbearing helps women become more stress-proof. Since they are often responsible for the bulk of child rearing while also keeping house and sometimes holding down jobs, they are adept at multitasking and handling stressful events. Also, according to some studies, women who give birth in their 40s may be more likely to live to be 100; the same is not true of men who have children in their 40s. Some experts believe this difference may be linked to a woman's more active role in child care and the care of grandchildren. However, this link has not been fully explored and other factors may be at play as well.

It's also important to note that women often have very developed support networks, meaning they have people to go to when they are dealing with problems and shoulders to cry on. Since men are often socialized to believe they must keep stiff upper lips, their support networks tend to be weaker, they have greater difficulty releasing emotional distress, and they may be embarrassed to cry. Additionally, overall male suicide rates are higher than those of women, a fact that also contributes to the differences in life expectancies.

Wealthier people and women tend to have longer life expectancies.
Wealthier people and women tend to have longer life expectancies.

Discussion Comments


@bythewell - If men have lower life expectancy because of suicide rates or something else that's preventable, though, it should be addressed. The same way that you'd hope people would address the differences in life expectancy between people living in poverty and people living with wealth.

It's an indicator of the overall success of society and the overall health of the people in the society.


@Ana1234 - Actually it does tend to be fairly universal that women are more connected in the community than men. It's not because of a biological tendency towards it necessarily, but if you are stuck in the village or tribe when you're pregnant or breastfeeding, you end up having to get to know the people around you.

Although the muscle mass thing might be true. I've also heard that men are more vulnerable to cardiovascular damage from getting too much iron in their diets. Women are less likely to have the same damage because they have a period every month and that depletes their iron supplies naturally.

I think it's more important to improve life expectancy across the board than to nitpick about who gets a few extra years.


It will be interesting to see when, or if, we manage to eliminate all the variables that currently contribute to men having a shorter life expectancy, like higher risk of accidents and suicide, if there is anything more to it than that. I mean, it seems to be an almost universal thing, which makes me think there's more to it than just the fact that in some cultures men have less of a support network and are less likely to go to the doctor.

Surely there are cultures out there where this isn't true and they would show the difference?

I think it might just be that men biologically don't live as long as women on average. I know that people with more muscle mass tend to have more heart problems, so that could be a contributing factor.

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