Stereotypically speaking, women aren’t often portrayed as strong or tough, especially in comparison to men. But scientifically speaking, women appear to be tougher than their male counterparts specifically when it comes to survival rates. A new study on gender and surviving crises found that in both the best and bleakest circumstances, women tend to outlive men.
Around the world, women’s life expectancy tends to be longer than men’s. In some countries, that life expectancy gap is greater than a decade. According to World Bank, the current life expectancy in the United States is 81 for women and 76 for men. In Japan, the country with the highest life expectancy in 2017, the average woman lives to 86 years old while the average man lives to 80. While this current life expectancy gap isn’t particularly new information, it is surprising to learn that this gap remains even in the most extreme circumstances, from disease to famine to slavery.
This new study, published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at life spans among populations who experiences severe conditions over the past 250 years, like the Ukraine famine in 1933 and freed Liberian slaves of the 1820s. With the exception of one slave population, researchers found that even when overall mortality rates were extremely high, women’s life expectancy was longer than men’s. In turn, researchers believe their findings affirm “the ubiquity of a female survival advantage,” even among extreme circumstances.
Researchers attributed this longer life expectancy in large part to newborn girls’ survival rate. Among the populations studies, baby girls were more likely to survive these extreme conditions than baby boys. This, in turn, contributed to the larger survival gap between men and women as they populations got older.
While researchers are unable to pinpoint an exact cause for the higher survival rate of newborn girls—such is also the case for today’s life expectancy gap—they concluded the advantage suggests a “complex interaction of biological environmental and social factors.” Meaning, biological factor typically associated with females may, in part, lead to higher survival rate.
“Under very harsh conditions females survive better than males,” the study states, “even at infant ages when behavioral and social differences may be minimal or favor males.” While social factors, from smoking to engaging in more high-risk behaviors, certainly play a role life expectancy, this new research further suggests genes and hormones typically associated with females may aid in longer life expectancy. For example, estrogen has been shown to enhance immunity to infectious diseases.
While women may boast a higher life expectancy on average, there is still plenty of work to be done in regards to mortality rates that disproportionately affect women. Specifically, maternity mortality rates are rising in the United States. In 2015, the World Health Organization concluded “about half of all maternal deaths in the USA are preventable.” To reiterate, maternal mortality rates are on the rise in the U.S. and many are completely preventable.
Race and socioeconomic status play a significant part in maternal mortality rate. This rise in maternal mortality rate disproportionately affects people who are black, low-income, and live in rural areas. This is also true for overall mortality rates.
Life expectancy in the U.S. is tied to inequality. Recent data shows that while rich American are living unprecedentedly longer, poor Americans are dying earlier. Previous studies on mortality rates have found similar links between income and life expectancy, with wealth be a significant determining factor in how long a person lives.
As this most recent study states, biology may be an indicator of longer life expectancy, but it alone is not the sole predictor of life expectancy. Additionally, these results say a lot about how we culturally view strength specifically as it relates to gender. While it may not always be recon recognized societally, the resilience of women is scientifically undeniable.