(December 2002) Mortality rates improved for both women and men in the second half of the 20th century. But these rates improved more rapidly for women than for men, so that until recently, the gender gap in life expectancy increased. In 1920, life expectancy at birth for females was two years greater than for males. By the 1970s, the female advantage was over seven years, but has declined since then, to six years in 2000 when life expectancy was 74 for males and 80 for females.

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Historically in the United States, young women ran a high risk of dying during or after childbirth. Thanks to improved prenatal and obstetric care, death rates from pregnancy-related causes have fallen to very low levels.

Today, women have lower mortality rates at every age. Men are three times as likely as women to die from injuries (unintentional injuries, suicide, or homicide), and progress against those causes of death has been much slower than against other causes in the last 50 years. There is also evidence that men at all ages are less likely to seek medical care and less likely to comply with medical instructions than are women.

The widening of the gap during most of the 20th century can be attributed primarily to the fact that men smoked more than women. But in recent decades, the prevalence of smoking among women has increased while the prevalence among men has declined.

The sex difference in mortality rates, with females at an advantage, is found in nearly all human populations, and in many other species of mammals in which males are bigger than females.

References

A.M. Minino et al., “Deaths: Final Data for 2000,” National Vital Statistics Reports 50, no. 15 (2002); Ian P.F. Owens, “Sex Differences in Mortality Rates,” Science, 297 (September 20 2002): 2008-2009.