Woman holding fists up to camera

Science confirms it: women are the stronger sex

Between bikini waxes, childbirth and the miraculous ability to withstand “man flu”, it has long been said that women are made of stronger stuff. Yet somehow, the myth that men are the tougher sex still seems to prevail - after all, they’re the hunter-gatherers, the warriors and the protectors, right? Well actually, a study by a group of Danish scientists has now put that assumption to bed once and for all, and officially confirmed what you’ve always known: that women really are the stronger sex. 

With the life expectancy for women being longer than men in all but a handful of countries worldwide (women in the US are now expected to live a full five years longer than men) the idea that women are, in general, slightly healthier than men, is nothing new. But according to a study by the Southern University of Denmark, which tracked the survival rates of individuals facing extreme situations, such as enslavement, epidemics or famine, they’re hardier too, living longer than men during times of peril.

woman flexing muscles Credit: Pixabay/Head54

In order to get these findings, researchers analysed the birth and death records of seven populations with extremely low life expectancies due to high risk situations. These included freed Liberian slaves who were encouraged to migrate back to Africa in the 1820s and 1830s (and in doing so encountered diseases their immune systems were not prepared for), two major Icelandic measles epidemics and the Irish potato famine, in which approximately one million people perished through starvation.

Each of these events led to a drastic drop in overall life expectancy where it fell below 20 years of age. in Iceland’s case, it dropped from 43.99 to an astonishing 18.83 years for women. But scientists found that in all cases women were more likely to survive: In all populations, they had lower mortality across almost all ages, and, with the exception of one slave population, they lived longer on average than men. Our results confirm the ubiquity of a female survival advantage even when mortality is extraordinarily high.” Scientists also proposed that the anomaly may be explained by the “premium” placed on male slaves as they sold for higher prices.

So if not lifestyle choices and behaviour patterns, then what does influence the differing life expectancy? Scientists say it has a lot to do with the fact that newborn girls were considerably more likely to survive into childhood than newborn boys, even in the darkest of situations: “Even in Liberia, the population with the lowest life expectancy, newborn girls were hardier than newborn boys.” These results suggest that there is something inherently biological about women’s ability to survive from the get-go, although unfortunately for us all, scientists still aren’t exactly sure what this is right now.

Baby in phone screen photo with old woman in background Credit: Pixabay/Geralt

Of course, the gap in life expectancy is one that has baffled scientists for a long time, and over the years a fair few theories have been put forward to explain it. On a biological level, scientists have also suggested that factors may include the influence of oestrogen in lowering cholesterol, and the fact that while women have chronic diseases, they tend to be less fatal. However, patterns of behaviour have also been held up, including the fact that women are more likely to seek healthcare and to overestimate risk, and less likely to indulge in risky behaviour.

But before you try to explain away the difference through the fact men are more likely to find themselves in risky situations, scientists say this is not necessarily the case for their higher mortality rates, arguing instead that the difference in survival has fundamental biological underpinnings: “under very harsh conditions females survive better than males even at infant ages when behavioral and social differences may be minimal or favor males.”

There’s still much more research to be done to unlock the secrets of why exactly female life expectancy is so much longer than male - something Russian men probably wish would hurry up, being cheated as they are out of a full 11 years right now. But the good news is that it is on the up for both genders in almost every country across the world, one of the exceptions being the USA, where it has fallen for the last two years. By 2030, life expectancy in many countries is expected to exceed 85 years, with women in South Korea set to fare best, packing in a solid 90 years. For now though, the next time someone tells you to “man up” or “stop being a girl” you can officially tell them that, in actual fact, they'd probably do well to just "woman up".