Women live longer than men even during severe famines and epidemics

Virginia Zarulli, Julia A Barthold Jones, Anna Oksuzyan, Rune Lindahl-Jacobsen, Kaare Christensen, James W Vaupel

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Women in almost all modern populations live longer than men. Research to date provides evidence for both biological and social factors influencing this gender gap. Conditions when both men and women experience extremely high levels of mortality risk are unexplored sources of information. We investigate the survival of both sexes in seven populations under extreme conditions from famines, epidemics, and slavery. Women survived better than men: 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. Gender differences in infant mortality contributed the most to the gender gap in life expectancy, indicating that newborn girls were able to survive extreme mortality hazards better than newborn boys. Our results confirm the ubiquity of a female survival advantage even when mortality is extraordinarily high. The hypothesis that the survival advantage of women has fundamental biological underpinnings is supported by the fact that under very harsh conditions females survive better than males even at infant ages when behavioral and social differences may be minimal or favor males. Our findings also indicate that the female advantage differs across environments and is modulated by social factors.

Original languageEnglish
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)E832-E840
Publication statusPublished - 23. Jan 2018


  • Journal Article
  • Epidemics
  • Mortality
  • Gender
  • Survival
  • Famines
  • Starvation/mortality
  • Enslavement
  • Humans
  • Measles/mortality
  • Middle Aged
  • Child, Preschool
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Longevity
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Young Adult
  • Life Expectancy
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Iceland/epidemiology
  • Child


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