Women tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to perceived strength, whether it be physical, emotional or mental, but a new study which analyzed three centuries’ worth of data found that when it comes to longevity, women are stronger than men.
The study, which was led by professors at the University of Southern Denmark and Duke University, analyzed mortality data going back more than 250 years, searching for people who died earlier than average.
Researchers found that a lot of the reasons women live longer start early—the advantages begin in infancy. In times of famine, epidemic and other adversity, newborn girls are more likely to survive.
This finding supports the idea that biology plays a factor since male and female infants differ little in behavior, researchers say.
“I’m not surprised at all about the studies,” says Heather Bartos, M.D., chief of obstetrics and gynecology and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Denton. “Obstetricians and neonatologists have known ‘forever’ that women were the stronger sex. Girl babies tend to do better as preemies than boys.”
Researchers looked at data from several different areas of the globe where extreme hardship of one variety or another struck. Overall, they found that even when a significant amount of both men and women died, women still lived longer than men by six months to almost four years.
And time and time again, researchers found that the advantage to being female came in infancy, suggesting that the difference in life expectancy can’t be completely explained away by the behavioral and social differences of different genders.
For instance, estrogen can affect how the body defends itself against viruses and other infectious diseases, leading one Canadian researcher to point out that the pervasive “man flu” may actually be a real thing.
Bartos explains that women are built differently in terms of fat stores, hormones, etc., in order to endure horrific situations. For instance hCG, a pregnancy hormone, actually mobilizes fat as a fuel source, which is why women in countries with poor food sources still have healthy-sized babies.
“Sometimes hormones work for women’s benefit—though many times it feels they don’t,” she adds. “Also, remember that evolutionarily speaking, we need more women than men. One man can repopulate a whole bunch! So, women need to be stronger [to accommodate].”
So women may be the stronger sex after all, but Bartos cautions that genetic advantage doesn’t mean that women can kick back and rely on gender to provide longevity.
“Every woman should do these three things to take care of herself: Make time to actually care for herself (not put herself last); create some sort of routine that works for her in terms of sleep, food and exercise; and find time to unwind, such as meditation or yoga.”
Working in some of the key tenets of the Blue Zones Project—such as the ones 104-year-old Okinawan Gozei Shinzato showed author Dan Buettner she partakes in—can also help. Shinzato has a healthy diet strong in plant-based foods. Whispering the Confucian adage “Hara hachi bu,” which roughly translates to “eat until you are eight parts full,” reminds her to stop eating when she is 80 percent full.
And her moai—four fast, lifelong friends—join her regularly, meaning her “tribe” is a constant source of encouragement and love.
Finding your tribe, eating a plant-rich diet, not overeating, and taking time for self-care, experts agree, can make that biological advantage translate to greater longevity, no matter your gender.
Stay on top of your health by scheduling an annual women’s wellness checkup. Use Texas Health’s “Find a Physician” tool to find a physician near you. Interested in learning more about the Blue Zones project in your area, and how to live a purposeful life? Check out the Blue Zones website here.