Women are better than men at withstanding crisis conditions like severe famines, epidemics and slavery, according to a recent study
The “gentle sex” gives men a run for their money.
Women are better than men at withstanding crisis conditions like severe famines, epidemics and slavery, according to a recent paper by researchers at the University of Southern Denmark and Duke University. And their hardiness starts early: Newborn girls survived those extreme circumstances better than boys, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences-published study found.
“The conditions experienced by the people in the analyzed populations were horrific. Even though the crises reduced the female survival advantage in life expectancy, women still survived better than men,” the authors wrote. “In all populations men had equal or higher mortality than women across almost all ages.” A good portion of females’ life-expectancy advantage, they added, came from “survival differences among infants.”
The researchers looked at seven extremely low-life-expectancy populations (20 years or less for at least one of the sexes) over a roughly 250-year span, including freed Liberian slaves and Trinidad plantation slaves in the 1800s, the 1933 Ukrainian famine, the Swedish famine of 1772 to 1773, Icelandic measles epidemics in 1846 and 1882, and the Irish potato famine of 1845 to 1849. Despite both sexes having a high mortality rate, women outlasted men by up to nearly four years on average.
The gender gap couldn’t entirely be chalked up to expected factors like risk-taking (i.e., tobacco and alcohol consumption, unsafe driving, unhealthy eating) or violence, the study found. Rather, the authors speculate, biological factors like hormonal and genetic differences could play a role: Estrogens have anti-inflammatory effects and boost immune defenses, they pointed out.
Overall, the team led by Virginia Zarulli and James Vaupel wrote, these results “confirm the ubiquity of a female survival advantage even when mortality is extraordinarily high” — and “add another piece to the puzzle of gender differences in survival.”
“The gender advantage they document comes from a combination of biology and environment,” epidemiologist Sandro Galea, dean at the Boston University School of Public Health, told Moneyish in an email. “The biology is probably about sex hormones, which are known to be anti-inflammatory and have vascular protective effects.” Next steps, he said, include a clearer understanding of “behavioral factors outside the skin that in many ways are much more modifiable than the biology.”
“I think it would be worthwhile not just focusing on these historical examples but looking at more modern examples to see if this paradigm holds up,” added Peter Jay Hotez, dean of Baylor University’s National School of Tropical Medicine. “With the modern-day example of Ebola, it seems to hold up as well.” (The 2013 Ebola outbreak in West Africa saw a higher survival rate for female patients, according to a 2016 New England Journal of Medicine letter.)
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