Biological and social aspects of gender differences in cognition, health, and longevity

Gender differences in old age are the result of the lifetime accumulation of biological and social factors1. Paradoxically, women outlive men in all countries of the world, yet they report higher morbidity at all ages than men. Using data from the Human Mortality Database (HMD), we have shown that in most low-mortality countries, the gender gap in life expectancy has gone through three phases: 1) stable, 2) increasing, and 3) decreasing gender differences. All but two countries have gone through these phases (although starting at different times)2, which suggests changes in gender-related social factors. We have also investigated various indicators of health and function among the oldest old and found that gender differences prevail in the highest age groups3,4. Furthermore, when it comes to musculoskeletal pain, results suggest that time spent in pain in relation to total life expectancy has increased in later cohorts4, more so for women than for men. Our register-based studies of medication use have shown that older women are prescribed more hypnotics and sedatives than older men5. Our research on sex differences in cognition builds on our previous results that women have an advantage in verbal episodic memory tasks and on face recognition tasks. Recent results have shown that women remember female faces with greater efficiency than male faces, but this advantage is diminished when attention is divided6.

1      Parker MG.  Aging in a gendered society: social and biological determinants of health in the elderly population. Chapter: Geriatrics. In: Schenk-Gustafsson K, DeCola PR, Pfaff DW, Pisetsky DS, editors. Handbook of clinical gender medicine.  Basel: Karger; 2012. p.482-488.

2      Thorslund M, Wastesson J, Agahi N, Lagergren M, Parker MG. The rise and fall of women’s advantage: a comparison of national trends in life expectancy at age 65 years. Eur J Ageing [In press: online] 2013. Available from: doi: 10.1007/s10433-013-0274-8.

3      Schön P, Parker MG, Kåreholt I, Thorslund M. Gender differences in associations between ADL and other health indicators in 1992 and 2002. Aging Clin Exp Res 2011; 23(2):91-98.

4      Schön P. Gender matters. Differences and change in disability and health among our oldest women and men [PhD Thesis]. Stockholm: Department of Social Work, Stockholm University; 2011.

5      Johnell K, Fastbom J. Gender and use of hypnotics or sedatives in old age: a nationwide register-based study. Int J Clin Pharm 2011; 33(5):788-793.

6      Lovén J, Herlitz A, Rehnman J. Women’s own-gender bias in face recognition memory: the role of attention at encoding. Exp Psychol 2011; 58(4):333-340.