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Monday March 2, 2015

RICHARD BÉLIVEAU’S COLUMN Healthy Aging – Why do women live longer than men?

In Canada, the life expectancy of a girl born in 2009 is 83.3 years – almost 5 years longer than a boy born at the same time (78.8 years). How can we explain such a difference?

The longer life expectancy of women can be explained by simple biological adaptation. Throughout evolution, in addition to giving birth, women had to feed and support children closely for a few years for them to reach adulthood. Early mortality in women would have had a catastrophic impact on the survival of our species; it seems that evolution gave women a biological advantage to ensure that they live longer.

This increased life expectancy also benefits from the late onset of serious and potentially deadly diseases. For example, while men are typically affected by heart disease between the ages of 50 and 60, women are affected by these same diseases on average 10 years later, between the ages of 70 and 80. Given that heart disease alone is responsible for half of all deaths, it’s easy to see why the select “centennials’ club” has 5 women for every man!

Recent studies also suggest that women’s immune systems may play a role in their longer life expectancy. We’ve known for a long time that the aging process brings a certain decline in the immune function, which promotes the apparition of infections, cardiovascular disease and cancers. According to the latest studies, women’s immune system doesn’t decline as much; it maintains higher levels of lymphocytes (white blood cells) and “killer” immune cells (NK) throughout the aging process. In a nutshell, women benefit from a stronger immune system while aging, which protects the body against potentially dangerous aggressions.   
The innate biological benefits that allow women to have a longer life expectancy do not compensate, however, for the consequences of making unhealthy life choices. For example, tobacco use by Canadian women has increased significantly in the last few years – and now, lung cancer outpaces breast cancer as the main cause of cancer-related deaths. Women who want to make the most of their biological predisposition to live longer should refrain from smoking, maintain a healthy weight by having a nutritious diet, and keep active by doing regular physical activity. 

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