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Life expectancy gap

By Peter Curson - posted Thursday, 21 November 2013


Today 3,479 Australian are aged over 100 years. Such people are a rare breed in Australia but rarer still are males who manage to achieve this landmark. Of the 3,479 centenarians only 621 are male. Women have dominated the ranks of the old-old for more than 130 years and continue to do so.

In Demography there are two basic “ laws”.

One is that more males than females are born, the ratio being roughly 104-105 males to every 100 females in developed countries like Australia. The other, is that males have always lagged behind in the life expectancy race with females traditionally living longer.

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The difference in male and female life expectancy is really a product of the last 130 years as in pre-20th century days male and female life expectancy was much closer. Over the last century we have witnessed a virtual revolution in life expectancy rates. At the turn of the 20th century Australian males had a life expectancy at birth of just over 55 years, whereas for females the figure was almost 59. Today life expectancy is more than 80 for males and almost 85 for females and Australia has approximately 132,000 inhabitants who are aged over 90 including more than 3,400 who have reached their century. In the 90+ age group, females outnumber males by a ratio of almost 2.5:1, and in the 100+ group the ratio is more than 5:1.

Life expectancy in Australia has been increasing for both males and females since the late 19th century but over the last 10-15 years we have seen a significant change where for the first time life expectancy has been improving more for men than women. Since the 1980s there has been a noticeable change as men have begun to close the long established longevity gap with women.

With respect to life expectancy at birth the biggest gap between males and females was in the late 1970s when the difference was almost 7 years. Today it is 4.5 year and has been falling every year. In the late 1980s females who made it to the age of 65, the current retirement age, could expect to live more than 4 years longer than their male counterparts. Today the gap is less than 3 years and falling. Interestingly, we still have some way to go before we reach the levels that prevailed before the mid 1930s when the gap was less than 2 years, or in the late 19th century when the difference between male and female life expectancy at birth was just over 1 year.

Throughout the last 130 years males have continually lagged behind in the life expectancy race, simply because Australian males have always had higher mortality rates than Australian females. For example, even today men are much more likely to die in their 20s than are women.

A good proportion of the difference in male and female life expectancy can be explained by the behaviour that men have traditionally engaged in, whether it be in smoking or alcohol abuse, employment in more hazardous jobs, more risk taking in everyday life or just generally exhibiting more aggression and violence.

In 2010 there were almost 9,000 deaths in Australia from such causes with males having a death rate more than twice that of females.

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Smoking behaviour is another important factor that helps explain the difference in longevity. Up until the 1980s when smoking was much more commonplace, men were far more likely to smoke than women and they paid the price. Today, deaths from smoking related behaviour still shows a male domination despite the fact that smoking rates have declined substantially over the last 20 years. Smoking rates also remain much higher among some disadvantaged male groups in Australia, such as those who inject drugs, those in prisons as well as those who are homeless. For indulging in such behaviour men paid the ultimate price experiencing much higher mortality rates at all ages.

Between 1945 and mid 1980, deaths from lung cancer increased from 11.3 deaths per 100,000 to 74.8 for males and from 3.5 per 100,000 to 33.4 for females. It really was a heyday of smoking. In 2010, lung cancer produced 8,099 deaths, 61percent of which were males. The result of such differences has significantly contributed to Australia’s old and particularly its ‘old old’ population both of which remain dominated by females.

Interestingly, since 1982 mortality rates for lung cancer have fallen by more than 43 percent for males but have increased by 57 percent for females.

Presumably if you elect to live like males you run the risk of dying like them. Only in the case of deaths from accidental falls do females manage to hold their own. Another important factor in which males figure prominently is obesity. Australia has one of the fattest populations in the developed world and males contribute disproportionally. Forty-two percent of all males aged over 18 are overweight compared with 28 percent of females, and males make up the bulk of obesity cases. The price to be paid for such a physical status is often high blood pressure and diabetes.

So what does our future hold? Even if men adopt a much healthier and active life style the gap in life expectancy for those aged over 65 will probably remain, although it may well decrease to about 2 years. We seem destined to continue to have a female dominated elderly population.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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