Why women beat men in the race to 100

Today’s very old are overwhelmingly female. Genetics and hormones play key roles
By Carol Ann Rinzler

Want to live to be 100? Pick your parents carefully, and make sure you’re born a girl. Centenarians (people who hit the century mark) usually have similarly long-lived grandparents, parents and siblings, and while the male Y chromosome delivers broad shoulders, slim hips, and tons of muscle, the female double X is practically a life insurance policy. Right now, there are approximately 500,000 centenarians around the world. The United Nations estimates that by 2050 there will be more than 2 million, and the research group Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence says the first person who will live longer than 150 years has already been born.

Today’s very old are overwhelmingly female. In the United States, the long-running New England Centenarian Study puts the ratio at 85% female/15% male. The same is true in Great Britain: 586 women to a mere 100 men. In Japan, there are seven 100 year old women for every 100 year old man. As for supercentenarians, people like the 330 hardy souls in the United States who have made it to 110 or more, it’s 9-to-1. Why? Animal studies at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) suggest the female XX chromosomal pairing — one from Mom and one from Dad — can extend lifespan but only with the help of female hormones secreted by the ovaries. As neurologist Dena Dubal explains, one X chromosome is randomly deactivated so if a woman’s active one is damaged the inactive X can take over making females “winners of the genetic lottery.”

As for physical ability, men may run faster and hit harder, but when Thomas Beltrame ran a fitness study at the University of Waterloo (Canada) in 2017 he found that a woman’s body processes oxygen faster and more efficiently than a man’s, making her “less prone to muscle fatigue and more likely to perform better athletically.” Women also perform better at beating a cold or the flu. There’s a real scientific reason why grown men turn into babbling babies when they catch a cold or flu. Asian studies show that the viruses hit men harder because high male testosterone levels suppress the overall immune response, while female immunity goes full steam on to blunt the bugs’ effects.

Aside from sex, geography has something to say about how long you’ll live. In the United States, although California is the state with the most centenarians (Alaska has the fewest), the Southern states seem to excel at producing long-livers. Being smart about your health also helps. As the New England study’s Jiaquan Xu notes, “If you diagnose chronic disease earlier and get proper treatment, these can be controlled or even prevented.” In short, the idea that “the older you get, the sicker you get” is a myth. The real deal is that “the older you get, the healthier you’ve been.” And there’s your gender difference: Most women traditionally schedule regular visits with the doctor. Most men don’t.

Finally, consider that modern centenarians grew up in a time when men were more likely than women to be involved in risky ventures such a fighting wars. Whether our currently more equitable risk-taking will alter the ratio of female-to-male ultra-senior citizens remains a mystery for one of today’s teenagers to unravel.

Probably that one boy or girl who’s going to live to be 150.

Number of Centenarians in 2016

Australia 4,870

Canada 8,230

Germany 8,839

United Kingdom 14,570

Spain 17,423

France 21,393

India 27,000*

China 48,000

Japan 65,000

United States 82,000


Source: 24/7 Wall St./OECD data