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Women are better survivors than men

11 January 2018

The only exception to the trend was the Trinidadian slave trade, in which men outlived women during the early 19th century.

The findings showed that women do not just outlive men in normal times, but they are also more likely to survive even in the worst of circumstances such as famines and epidemics.

The fact that women have an edge in infancy, when behavioral differences between the sexes are minimal, supports the idea that the explanation is at least partly biological, the researchers said.

Scientists at Duke University set out to measure the impact of starvation, disease and other hardships on mortality rates among human populations over the last 250 years.

'Even though the crises reduced the female survival advantage in life expectancy, women still survived better than men'.

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Case studies included the Irish starvation of 1845-1849, the Iceland measles epidemics of 1846 and 1882, and the experiences of freed Liberian slaves returning to Africa from the United States in the early 19th century, where they encountered a very different disease climate which killed many.

The data covered seven populations in which people of both sexes had a hard time in 20 years or less, including starvation victims in Sweden, Ireland and Ukraine in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Babies born during that time rarely made it past their second birthday.

Across modern populations, women outlive men in nearly all instances, with life expectancy for English women being 83.1 years, compared to 79.5 years for men (the figure for Scotland is 81.2 years for women and 77.1 years for men).

Another group of people living in Ireland in the 1840s famously starved when a potato blight caused widespread crop failure.

The researchers found that, in all the populations, women had lower mortality across nearly all ages, and with one exception, women lived longer on average than men.

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The researchers found that the girls born during the starvation in Ukraine in 1933 had a mortality rate of 10.85, and boys 7.3.

'Most of the female advantage was due to differences in mortality among infants. Newborn girls are hardier than newborn boys.

Biological differences between the two sexes also played a role, the researchers suggested.

Lead author Dr Virginia Zarulli, assistant professor of epidemiology, writing in the journal PNAS said: "The conditions experienced by the people in the analysed populations were horrific". Estrogens, for example, have been shown to enhance the body's immune defenses against infectious disease.

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Women are better survivors than men