05/30/2013 10:34 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

Dare to Be 100: Why Do Women Outlive Men?

It is a major body blow to my male vanity to acknowledge that when a wife dies, the husband dies soon thereafter. But when a husband dies it doesn't seem to bother the wife. I suspect that this sequence will obtain when my wife and I decide to cash our chips in the distant future. My mother lived for 20 years after Dad died. This fact hurts, but I'm getting used to it.

Worldwide, there are 10 female centenarians for every male over 100.[1] The male club motto becomes "So many opportunities. So little time." This gender survival disparity extends beyond humans as most species show variance in sexual survivorship. Female monkeys outlive male monkeys by seven years. Female whales live 20-30 years longer than their male pals.

Paradoxically, despite the fact that fewer males live into old age, the ones who do seem healthier and more robust than the ladies. Why?

Hosts of theories are advanced to justify the human sex disparity -- smoking habit, work stress, testosterone toxicity, which confers more dangerous lifestyle, etc. Certainly hormonal differences exist and are thought to underlie the big differences in blood cholesterol values.
Men actually begin with a head start in life. There are more male babies born than female, 51/49.

This is supposedly due to the fact that male destined sperm swim faster.

In my happy, happy years as a first-year resident in internal medicine at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, 1958-9, when the hospital was still segregated I observed that although overall there were fewer old black than white women, the old black women lived longer. The old black women still had work to do.

This may also underlie the hypothesis that is suggested by Dr. Kristen Hawkes of Utah called the "grandmother hypothesis." The fact that women commonly far outlive their reproductive years requires us to discover why evolution continues to favor their existence. The proposition holds that the old grandmother, like the old Charity Hospital women, continues to serve as a vital survivor benefit for the younger family members.

It seems that Mother Nature (note, not Father Nature) seems to place a higher value on the female of the species. They are simply more important, more necessary to the whole enterprise.
This applies too to my medical field. I am certain that if some day all the nurses failed to show up for work, we would all be far worse off than if the male doctors were absent.

The nurse is the MVP of health care.

So be it.


[1] Perls, Thomas T., and Margery Hutter Silver. Living To 100: Lessons In Living To Your Maximum Potential At Any Age. New York: Basic Books, 1999. p. 87-88.

For more by Walter M. Bortz II, M.D., click here.

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