None of us know how much time we have on Earth. But what we do know is that in most societies around the world, women are living longer than men on average.
In the U.S., the average life expectancy for women is 79.3 years compared to 73.5 years for men, according to a December 2022 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But why?
We asked doctors for more insight, as well as tips to help everyone increase their life expectancy. It turns out there are several reasons that might explain why women live longer than men.
It starts with hormones.
Surprisingly, the hormone estrogen plays a big role in helping women live longer, experts told HuffPost. (At least until women go through menopause and their estrogen levels naturally drop.)
“Estrogen keeps blood vessels healthy by causing dilatation (widening of blood vessels) and improving the function of endothelial cells,” said Dr. Robert Segal, cardiologist and founder of Manhattan Cardiology. “This can improve the flow of blood and lower the risk of atherosclerosis, which is a major cause of heart disease.”
Another way this reproductive hormone helps women? It can “improve cholesterol profiles by dropping levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and raising levels of HDL (good) cholesterol,” according to Segal.
He added that estrogen’s anti-inflammatory properties also help to “reduce inflammation in blood vessels, which could lower the risk of chronic cardiovascular illnesses” such as coronary heart disease, heart attacks, strokes and heart failure.
Since cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death for Americans, people with more estrogen have a leg up.
Men are more likely to engage in risky behavior.
Another reason women are living longer than men is because they aren’t participating in risky behavior as often. Dr. Rohit Vuppuluri, an interventional cardiologist in Chicago, said men are more likely to engage in social habits like smoking, drinking alcohol, using drugs and making poor dietary choices.
These behaviors “increase the risk of chronic diseases like hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes mellitus, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic kidney disease, liver cirrhosis and obesity,” he said. “All of these chronic diseases increase morbidity and can ultimately lead to worsened mortality.”
Women are more likely to choose healthy food.
Regularly eating healthy, nutritious food can help you live longer, and women are more likely to do this than men, according to research.
Blanca Garcia, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Healthcanal, says she sees women more frequently buying groceries, planning meals and seeking help from a nutritionist to meet their dietary needs.
She added, “I strongly believe that diet and exercise play a heavy role in a person’s longevity. Better food choices keep the body in balance, and the movement keeps muscles and bones stronger.”
Segal pointed out that anyone who gets regular physical exercise is more likely to have “better heart health, weight control and general well-being, all of which can add years to your life.”
“Changes to a person’s food and exercise habits, among other things, can help both men and women live longer and healthier lives,” he added.
Men are more likely to suppress their emotions.
Yes, deeply feeling things can lead to a longer life. Avigail Lev, a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder and director of the Bay Area CBT Center in California, believes that suppressing your emotions and having a shorter life expectancy are linked.
“Men are conditioned by society to deeply repress and suppress their emotions,” she said. “Due to their emotional suppression and other factors, women tend to have more socially intimate relationships, providing them with support they can lean on.”
Dr. Naval Parikh, a primary care physician and internist in Florida, agreed. “Women tend to have larger social networks and stronger social connections, which can have a positive impact on mental health,” he said. This support system means women “tend to have better coping mechanisms for dealing with stress.”
Suppressing your emotions can increase stress, elevate cortisol levels, negatively affect sleep, impair relationships and interpersonal connections, and increase the likelihood of mental health disorders, including trauma, depression and anxiety, according to Lev.
Women are more likely to go to the doctor.
“Men are much more likely to brush off any episodes of chest pain or shortness of breath as just a minor symptom that will eventually go away, rather than seeking medical attention to find out if it is something concerning,” Vuppuluri said. “Men resist seeking assistance and continue to work through their discomforts until they are in a dire situation, which then leads to worse medical outcomes.”
And for those men who do go to the doctor? They don’t always listen to them or follow their advice. A 2017 study by the American Academy of Family Physicians found that up to half of men seeking a doctor’s care don’t follow their physician’s recommendations. This includes not filling prescriptions, not taking prescriptions as directed, not following up with tests for their condition and not showing up for a follow-up.
Vuppuluri said that “men are less likely to agree to take medications if they do not actively feel unwell.” So, for conditions like hypertension, hyperlipidemia and diabetes mellitus, men are “much less compliant with medications as they often do not feel symptoms.” This can cause them to develop irreversible symptoms such as organ damage or organ failure, according to Vuppuluri.
Going to the doctor, following treatment plans and getting frequent check-ups can make a big difference in longevity. Doing these things “can slow the growth of chronic diseases, such as heart problems, and help people live longer and be healthier overall,” according to Segal.
Simply being a woman does not guarantee a longer life. There are some innate benefits, but the majority of factors predicting a person’s life expectancy are habits within their control. Exercising often, eating healthy foods, going to the doctor, finding a support system and more can help anyone lead a healthier life ― for many years to come.