There are many great things about being born female, but one distinct advantage of being a woman is that we can expect to live an average of five years longer than men.
In the past, researchers and demographers have chalked this longevity gap up to biological factors, which range from women’s supposedly stronger immune system to the genetic benefits of having two X chromosomes. But perhaps, women’s disproportionate endurance isn’t biological but an “outcome of social dynamics.” Or, at least, that’s what University of Maryland, College Park Sociology Professor Philip Cohen argued in The Atlantic this week.
Cohen’s argument specifically focuses on smoking, which was a male-dominated practice throughout the twentieth century, as the culprit for men’s shortened lifespans. While more than 80 percent of American men born in 1901 smoked by their 30s, women of that generation’s smoking rates never surpassed 55 percent. Cohen also notes that while the American smoking gender gap has narrowed since 1965, smoking is still more common for men worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
Cohen acknowledges that social factors — such as the historical exclusion of women from war and the disproportionate amount of men murdered each year during violent crimes — may play a role in women’s longer lifespans. He also dismisses the effect of this country’s relatively high maternal mortality rates. He argues that since maternal mortality accounts for only 4 percent of all female deaths in America, it doesn’t impact women’s greater longevity. “I suspect that even if we eliminated smoking, war, murder, and maternal mortality, women would live a few years longer than men, on average,” Cohen concluded. “But that doesn’t make it natural.”
However, previous research challenges Cohen’s conclusion. In a 2008 Time Magazine piece, Tom Perls, founder of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University, pointed to the fact that women develop cardiovascular issues later in life than men, as well as the potential positives of having two X-chromosomes as major factors contributing to our life expectancy gender gap.
He also argued that the male-specific phenomenon known as the “testosterone storm” contributes to higher death rates among men. “The levels of the hormone can be quite high and changeable, and that can induce some pretty dangerous behavior among young men,” he told Time. “They don’t wear their seatbelts; they drink too much alcohol; they can be aggressive with weapons and so on and so forth.”
We may never be sure why women live longer than men, but there are certain things we can all do to increase the length and quality of our lives. Let’s focus on avoiding harmful habits like smoking, and adopting positive ones like eating well, sleeping and exercising. Because at the end of the day, the most important thing is that we enjoy the time we have.