Many families' older generations are made up of matriarchs without mates. Why is this so? It is a well-documented fact that there are more widows than widowers. According to Dr. Robert H. Shmerling of Harvard, statistics from around the world corroborate this fact. Could there be persistent reasons why there is such a worldwide gender gap among the elderly?

Life Expectancy and the Role Gender Plays

A study led by researchers from the University of Southern California found that life expectancy has risen for both males and females in the last 40 or so years. Yet women's life expectancy is consistently higher than men's. In the United States, women have an average life span of 81 years; men's average life span is 76.2 years. Beth Newcomb reports about the study by Crimmins, Zhang, and Saito on the website of the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.

Dr. Smerling has been practicing medicine for over 25 years and has noticed a few differences that may help shed some light as to why there are more widows than widowers among the elderly population. Dr. Shmerling is an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, a teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, and clinical chief of Rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Dr. Shmerling gave some of the main scientifically supported reasons in an article in Harvard Health Publications:

  • Men are 50% more likely to die from heart disease.
  • Men have less of a social life.
  • Men are less likely to go to the doctor when they need to.
  • Men naturally take larger risks and have jobs (police officers, military, firefighters, etc.) that increase their chances of incurring medically significant injuries.

It is important to note that boys also tend to have a tougher start in life. According to statistics boys have a higher prevalence of developmental disorders due to the Y chromosome mutating more often than the X chromosome. Male babies who are born prematurely die more often than females. Yet, ironically enough, there are more males born than females. Perhaps this is a natural order at work to maintain a general balance between the numbers of men and women populating the world.

PTSD and Heart Health

More men than women are veterans, and veterans are known to have some of the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to researcher Stephen S. Coughlin, PTSD is related to higher incidence of coronary heart disease in men. People who suffer from PTSD have higher blood pressure, obesity, and high cholesterol, all known risk factors for coronary heart disease. PTSD is also related to higher incidence of stroke. Of the 475 former POWs (prisoners of war) who participated in a study published by the National Institutes of Health, almost 13% of those who suffered from PTSD had a stroke at some point in their lives. The POWs who were not diagnosed with PTSD had a stroke rate of 7.6%.

Although PTSD is a common anxiety disorder that can affect men and women, veteran and non-veteran alike, veterans have the highest incidences of it. For older people in the Baby Boomer generation who served during the Korean and Vietnam wars, this correlation may very well contribute to why there are fewer men around in the golden years; it is not because they are a weaker sex, but rather because many of them have carried a heavy burden.

While most people want to live longer these days, they only want to do so if those extra years can be spent in good health. Preventive measures can go a long way toward living healthier, longer lives, but that means men must be encouraged to go to the doctor and to get help when they need it.

Sources

Coughlin, S. S. (2011). Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Cardiovascular Disease. The Open Cardiovascular Medicine Journal, 5: 164-170. National Institutes of Health. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3141329/. Last Visited June 1, 2016.

Crimmins, E.M., Zhang, Y., and Saito, Y. (2016). Trends Over 4 Decades in Disability-Free Life Expectancy in the United States. American Journal of Public Health. Preview. Abstract. Doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2016.303120.

Available at http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303120.

Newcomb, B. (2016). Americans Live Longer but with Disabilities or Health Issues, Study Shows. USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. Available at http://gero.usc.edu/2016/04/14/americans-live-longer-but-with-disabilities-or-health-issues-study-shows/. Last Visited June 1, 2016.

Shmerling, R.H. (2016). Why Men often Die Earlier than Women. Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School. Available at http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/why-men-often-die-earlier-than-women-201602199137. Last Visited May 31, 2016.

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