It’s long been understood that, for the most part, women tend to live longer than men.


In fact, the difference in lifespan has remained stable even throughout monumental shifts in society. Consider Sweden, which offers the most reliable historic records. In 1800, life expectancy at birth was 33 years for women and 31 years for men; today it is 83.5 years and 79.5 years, respectively. In both cases, women live about 5% longer than men.



Nor has it been easy to prove that men are more abusive of their bodies. Factors such as smoking, drinking, and overeating may partly explain why size of the gender gap varies so widely between countries. Russian men are likely to die 13 years earlier than Russian women, for instance, partly because they drink and smoke more heavily. But the fact is that female chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons also consistently outlive the males of the group, and you do not see apes – male or female – with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and beer glasses in their hands.



Instead, it would seem like the answer lies in our evolution. “Of course, social and lifestyle factors do have a bearing, but there does appear to be something deeper engrained in our biology,” says Tom Kirkwood, who studies the biological basis for ageing at Newcastle University in the UK.



There are many potential mechanisms – starting with the bundles of DNA known as chromosomes within each cell. Chromosomes come in pairs, and whereas women have two X chromosomes, men have an X and a Y chromosome.



That difference may subtly alter the way that cells age. Having two X chromosomes, women keep double copies of every gene, meaning they have a spare if one is faulty. Men don’t have that back-up. The result is that more cells may begin to malfunction with time, putting men at greater risk of disease.



Among the other alternatives is the “jogging female heart” hypothesis – the idea that a woman’s heart rate increases during the second half of the menstrual cycle, offering the same benefits as moderate exercise. The result is delayed risk of cardiovascular disease later in life. Or it could also be a simple matter of size. Taller people have more cells in their bodies, meaning they are more likely to develop harmful mutations; bigger bodies also burn more energy, which could add to wear and tear within the tissues themselves. Since men tend to be taller than women, they should therefore face more long-term damage.



But perhaps the true reason lies in the testosterone that drives most other male characteristics, from deeper voices and hairier chests to balding crowns. Evidence comes from an unexpected place: the Imperial Court of the Chosun Dynasty in Korea. Korean scientist Han-Nam Park recently analysed the detailed records of court life from the 19th Century, including information about 81 eunuchs whose testicles had been removed before puberty. His analyses revealed that the eunuchs lived for around 70 years – compared to an average of just 50 years among the other men in the court. Overall, they were 130 times more likely to celebrate their hundredth birthday than the average man living in Korea at the time. Even the kings – who were the most pampered people in the palace – did not come close.

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