"It is not that women live longer. It’s about men dying earlier," explains Marc Luy, a researcher from the Vienna Institute of Demography and author of the "Cloister Study". Allianz expert Michaela Grimm, economist at Allianz Group Economic Research und Corporate Development, knows: "Well-educated women have the best chance of joining the Centenarians' club one day."
The debate about gender life-expectancy dates to the mid-18th century when the female edge in longevity was first documented. Luy’s study of nuns and monks living in cloisters over hundreds of years shows that lifestyle and environment seem to influence life expectancies of men and women more than biological factors.
The 42-year-old head of a research group on health and mortality has been fascinated with this issue since his student days. At university, he learned that women in post-war Germany live up to six years longer than men. The gap is even greater in the United States, England and Wales. This puzzled him, and the phenomenon became his master’s thesis.
"I was trying to conceive of an experiment to study the causes for earlier male mortality when – thanks to my mother, who taught at a monastery’s boarding school – I realized such experiments have been conducted for thousands of years – in cloisters," he recalls.
"There, populations of monks and nuns live under similar conditions, so they provide a sample to understand the biological versus environmental factors in life expectancy."
For his cloister study, Luy collected data on 11,624 monks and nuns from 12 monasteries in southern Germany, covering a period of more than four centuries up until 1995.
„Having responsibilities leads to longer lives“
In "Causes of Male Excess Mortality: Insights from Cloistered Populations" and subsequent publications, Luy clearly shows that monks and women experienced similar increases in life expectancy until the 1970s (see interactive graph). At the time, a typical 25-year-old woman and a nun of the same age could look forward to 51 more years of life. In comparison, a 25-year-old male could only expect 45-46 more years on average.
However, monks could expect up to five more years than the general male population. "That was a spectacular result," Luy says of his findings. "It shows that gender-specific differences in life expectancy can be reduced from six years to one or less when lifestyles are harmonized. In the end, biological factors seem to account for no more than a year in life expectancy between men and women."
In short, the study shows life expectancy is not so much influenced by gender but by lifestyle. Men in the general population simply bear the consequences of their riskier lifestyle. But many of these social, political, economic, demographic and behavioral factors can be influenced if men desire to live longer.
Allianz expert Grimm also subscribes to this theory: "Statistically speaking, sound advice to give anyone who wants to enjoy a long life is not to smoke and to stay physically active."
When Luy presented his findings, monks often attributed their long lives to a regular daily routine. "Many also pointed to a smooth transition into old age," Luy comments. Ongoing responsibilities were often considered beneficial by elder monks.
Curiously, official data shows that the gender mortality gap appears to be closing since the early 1980s. It is not so much that men are narrowing the gap, but that women in the general population are adopting more harmful "male" lifestyles.
Luy puts it this way: "More women have been entering the workforce, experiencing the stress that can come with professional jobs and taking up the habits men use to cope, such as drinking and smoking more. This is reflected in the data, and the effects can be clearly seen in the trends."