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Women have poorer health than men in old age, despite living longer

Women have poorer health than men in old age, despite living longer
30th November 2018

It would be easy to assume that elderly women are healthier than their male counterparts since they tend to live longer, but this is not the case. According to new research published by the University of Exeter, women suffer poorer health as they age.

Scientists discovered that genes gained by women when they go through the menopause are actually bad for their health. In contrast, men, who stay fertile for a lot longer, see their bodies maintaining themselves better beyond middle age.

In the UK, life expectancy for women stands at 82.9 and for men it’s 79.2, but despite living for longer, the female sex is more likely to see their quality of life eroded through ill-health. This is something to consider when caring for elderly relatives.

Once the menopause has occurred, women will no longer be able to pass their genes onto offspring, so have evolved to produce fewer. Since men can continue to father children for much longer, they keep producing genes that would benefit a child and therefore aids them in the long run.

Previous research has found that women often report feeling worse than men studied as they age. The phenomenon has been dubbed the male-female health-survival paradox and shows the pay-off among the sexes.

Professor David Hosken, co-author of the University of Exeter study, said: “Shared genes tether the sexes together in an evolutionary tug of war. Selection is trying to push females and males in different directions, but the shared genome means each sex stops the other from reaching its [optimum].

“Basically, certain genes will make a good male but a bad female, and vice versa. However, after females reach menopause, they no longer reproduce to pass on their genes which means reproduction on females is greatly weakened. So, after that point, any genes that improve late-life male fitness will accumulate, even if they harm female fitness.”

In order to optimise the health of elderly people, it’s important to understand the differences between how the sexes age. Professor Hosken pointed out to The Times that survival and health are not the same thing, but as people live longer, it’s important they do so in a comfortable manner.

The paper was entitled Intralocus sexual conflict resolves the male-female, health-survival paradox and was published in the journal Nature Communications. It corroborated mathematical models that suggested the same thing.

As people live longer and medicine advances, doctors will be able to treat men and women in the ways that are most suitable for the ways in which they age. This could lead to much better quality of life for all and perhaps even longer lives for men.