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Why Women Live Longer

Faculty Associate Philip Cohen points to male smoking habits as an important factor in understanding the relative longevity of women

Women live longer than men in all but a small handful of countries, but that is not necessarily natural according to a recent article in The Atlantic by University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen. Women’s longevity has multiple causes, including more resilient immune systems and lower rates of accidental, homicidal, or suicidal death. But childbirth, access to modern healthcare, and lower rates of smoking all play a part, writes Cohen.

Ten thousand years ago, female hunter-gatherers lived longer than their male counterparts, but women lost this advantage once agricultural food production started allowing them to have more children spaced more closely together. Modern healthcare drastically reduces the risks of childbirth and allows women to live longer after their childbearing years are over, so in the last century or so, women have once again begun living longer than men. 

But not all of the gap in life expectancy is natural, argues Cohen. The modern-day gap in life expectancy between men and women may be partly due to differences in smoking habits. More than 80% of American men born in 1901 smoked by the time they were in their thirties, but smoking rates among young women never passed 55%. In recent decades, smoking rates among both men and women have declined, so the gap in life expectancy may start to shrink in the coming years.

See the complete Atlantic article.