Girl power

Generally speaking, stats from places like professional sport suggest men have the edge on women when it comes to physicality. That bit faster, that bit stronger.

But the human race is a marathon not a sprint, as they say and now a new study has revealed women may actually be naturally better at staying the course than men.

Especially at times in our history when that marathon was taking a particularly bumpy route. Famine, deadly epidemics or slavery, say. The kind of thing that needs more than a tiny paper cup of water from a roadside table to get you though: women are apparently better designed to keep going.

So just what evidence is there that Girl Power was in fact more than just a convenient excuse to sell t-shirts to teens in the mid-nineties?

Standing the test of time

Across most cultures women tend to outlive men. Worldwide the average is just over 68 years for men and just under 73 for women. This is thought to be down to a mix of lifestyle choices and biological factors.

This work, from the Southern University of Denmark, looked at whether the same trend holds up in times of hardship. To find out researchers turned the clock back and examined data from times in our history when things were considerably less than peachy.

The life expectancy of 19th century slaves were among the grim plights inspected. Both Trinidadian plantation slaves and freed Liberian slaves returning to Africa from the U.S and struggling with the climate.

How both sexes faired with starvation was also looked at. For this they used the Swedish famine from 1772 to 1773, the Irish famine between 1845 and 1849, and Ukrainian famine of 1933. The last challenge was coping with disease. Scientists explored stats from two measles epidemics in Iceland during 1846 and 1882.

All perfect periods to look at from a scientific records perspective. If not quite from a time traveling DeLorean window perspective.

Don’t get me wrong, women aren’t invincible. None of these events were one long health spa for either gender. For the most part though, even in these extreme circumstances, girls were outlasting boys. Literally, often neither would make it far out of childhood.

During the Icelandic measles outbreak of 1882, life expectancy dropped from 43.99 to 18.83 years for females and from 37.62 to just 16.76 years for males. Likewise the Irish famine, pre-crisis both men and women lived to around 38 but at its worst the disaster saw lifespan fall 18.17 years for men, but only 22.4 for women. Ukraine and Sweden showed similar patterns.


Only in the case of Trinidadian slaves did men have the edge on women. Don’t celebrate just yet guys, it’s probably because slave owners made more profit by keeping male slaves alive. Great. A real pyric victory there lads.

So why, with only one exception, do women appear more built to last?

The key seems to be biology. We know because even as infants, before any social or external factors have taken hold, there’s a difference. Lead author Dr Virginia Zarulli explains,

“We find that even when mortality was very high, women lived longer… It is striking that during epidemics and famines as harsh as those analysed here newborn girls still survived better than newborn boys.”

The divide could in part be down to hormones. A recent review of testosterone’s effect on the immune system found T may go some way to lowering a guy’s immune system. Whereas estrogen seems to shore up women’s internal defences against hardier conditions, in part because their bodies often have both themselves and a child to protect.

Evolution may also explain the longer lasting lady in that they need an extra 9 months give or take to have more children and keep our whole species show on the road.

There are cultural factors too though. Fast forward back to modern times and men are more inclined to be risk takers. They generally smoke, drink and take drugs at a higher rate than women and also drive less safely. Although their parking is significantly better. This isn’t the whole picture for Dr Zarulli however,

“Although behaviours are important factors, they cannot fully explain the sex difference in survival. In almost all human populations women live longer than men.”

She suggests that this work adds to the idea that the gender gap has “stems from fundamental biological roots.”  Prof Max Headley, Professor of Physiology at the University of Bristol, also has a theory:

“It’s well-known that women tend to have more subcutaneous fat and a lower metabolic rate.  So their stores of energy are likely to last longer under conditions of famine.”
She Tarzan, You Jane

She Tarzan, You Jane

There’s a bit of good news for everyone here. Women, when the going gets really tough, you keep on keeping on. Survivor? More like MADAMvivor, ammarite readers?……Readers? *taps mic*.

Cheer up though boys. Happily, for most of us, slavery, rampant plague and a shortage of food aren’t immediate concerns. This relatively comfortable era we live in is your time to shine. The perfect opportunity to work hard in the gym and make the most of any short-term but impressive physical advantages.

Life may not be a sprint, but let’s face it, even if it doesn’t last as long, sprinting is awesome. It’s better to burn out than fade away, to quote Neil Young (who is like 104 now or something.)

Sure, the post-apocalyptic world may be one big stripped back bachelorette party, but until the End of Days, guys will always be there swearing blind they loosened that jar lid first really.

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