Mortal combat

Genetics ensure women live longer, but men can narrow the gap.
Mortal Combat
Men live shorter lives than women, but that can be combated by men actively working on their health throughout their lives. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Unless they figure out how to bust into their biology and rewire the human genome, guys may just have to accept a cold, hard fact.

The ladies are going to outlive you.

It’s a statistical certainty for the foreseeable future.

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us women in the U.S typically outlive men by about five years. The average life expectancy for a woman in this country is 81.2 years. For a man, it’s 76.4 years.

Are women simply blessed with superior genes? Can men do anything to improve their odds?

Probably yes on the genes, positively yes on the odds. A man’s shorter lifespan is partly the result of biology, although research also shows us a man’s lifestyle may contribute to his earlier-than-hoped-for demise.

A great many factors are at play when it comes to male longevity, said Harland Holman, MD, medical director at the Spectrum Health Family Medicine Residency Center.

As lifestyle goes, the biggest difference between men and women starts at about age 18 and carries through to age 50, Dr. Holman said. In this demographic, it’s not so much what men do as what they don’t do.

“In those age groups, women go to doctors because of pregnancy, and they’re often plugged into the medical community,” Dr. Holman said.

A CDC study last year revealed that about one in five men are without a usual place of health care, compared to a little more than one in 10 women. Another CDC study showed that women in the 24 to 44 age group log twice as many physician’s office visits as men in the same age group.

At important times, then, women connect to the medical community and lock into a regimen of preventative checkups, certainly improving the odds a doctor will detect a disease or health issue before it becomes a bigger problem.

Conversely, the data indicates many men will avoid checkups, lowering their odds of learning about medical problems at a manageable stage.

At some stages men exacerbate the problem. They’re more prone to engage in risky behaviors in their 20s, and they often return to risky behaviors in their 40s or 50s, Holman said.

It’s worth pointing out that once men hit a certain age—their mid 70s, roughly—their life expectancy aligns with women’s. Said Dr. Holman: “Comparing a man to a woman, if they make it to 75, that age group is pretty similar (in lifespan). But two 20-year-olds? The difference is about 5.5 years.”

So apart from making the obvious beneficial lifestyle changes—proper diet, regular exercise and fewer spelunking vacations (men make up 83 percent of caving injuries)—how can a man be more proactive?

A good first step is a checkup.

“If you’re totally healthy, I’d recommend every year,” Dr. Holman said, although he pointed out it’s entirely acceptable for healthy men ages 18 to 40 to visit the doctor every two to three years.

On the other hand, someone with a family history of serious health problems should visit the doctor at least once a year, Dr. Holman said. A physician will check blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol and similar key indicators, not just to get a snapshot of a patient’s overall health, but also to foretell any medical conditions where early detection can make all the difference.

Sadly still, for men at least, much of the human body is immutable. You can be a Whole Foods junkie who runs like a hamster, but you can’t change Mother Nature.

And research has shown Mother Nature may want women to live longer than men.

At the turn of the millennium, Richard Cawthon, Ph.D., of the University of Utah School of Medicine, authored a study that details an association between telomere length and lifespan. Telomeres are akin to caps on the end of chromosomes, enabling cells to divide non-destructively. A telomere can be short or long, and research has also shown that women have longer telomeres than men.

“The longer it is, the longer you live; the shorter it is, the shorter you live,” Dr. Holman said, cautioning that much of the research is experimental.

Still other research has discovered that testosterone heightens a man’s risk for cardiovascular disease, while estrogen may do exactly the opposite in a woman.

“Testosterone gives you bad cholesterol, estrogen does the opposite,” Dr. Holman said. “If you give too much testosterone in older men, they have increased risk of heart attack.”

So what’s a guy supposed to do with all these predispositions and prognostications?

If you’re the billionaire science type, you take Mother Nature head-on and bust into the biology to rewire the human genome.

A recent Newsweek story highlights the efforts of Silicon Valley’s mega-wealthy in slowing the aging process, or as they rate it, “curing death.”

Maybe they just suffer from telomere envy.

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