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Life expectancy gap closing between men and women Add to ...

In the battle of the sexes, women have long enjoyed one indisputable fact: they live longer than men.

Now it appears possible that could change.

As a growing number of men shun smoking, turn to healthy diets, and exercise and make regular trips to the doctor, they are starting to close the long-standing life expectancy gap with women. A new report from Statistics Canada shows the average male life expectancy reached 78.3 for babies born between 2005 to 2007, a gain of nearly three years compared to a decade earlier.

But the average woman's life expectancy rose less than two years in the same time period and now sits at 83.

That means instead of living nearly six years longer than men on average, the female life expectancy in Canada is now just 4.7 years longer than their male counterparts.

"I think there's been a shift in society with men taking more care of themselves … where previously that was seen as the woman's domain," said Holly Tuokko, a professor of psychology and director of the Centre on Aging at the University of Victoria. "Men didn't do those kinds of things but I think we've seen a real shift over the last 10 but probably 20 years."

Prof. Tuokko also pointed out that many men now share the role of breadwinner, which could help alleviate stress that could be damaging to health over a long period of time. In addition, fewer men are working dangerous jobs than they were in the past, which factors into increased life expectancy, said Dianne Groll, assistant professor of psychiatry at Queen's University.

Research has traditionally shown that natives and people with low incomes tend to have lower life expectancy rates than other segments of the population.

But experts have long struggled to understand why women across a vast number of countries tend to consistently outlive men. Theories abound, including the idea that men are biologically programmed to undertake more risks, such as reckless driving, which could affect the average lifespan.

But one thing does seem clear: Advancements in medical science, combined with a greater shift toward healthy living, is now helping men make significant gains.

"We know quite clearly that certain eating patterns are not good for our health, same as certain behaviours like smoking and not exercising," Prof. Tuokko said. "All of them have been changing at the same time [and]they seem to be having quite a remarkable influence on the health of society and consequently the longevity."

At the same time, women may be adopting some bad habits that are starting to affect longevity, said Alain Gagnon, a professor in sociology, epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Western Ontario who is currently in Germany studying the effects of early life on longevity.

"It could be that men are catching up," Prof. Gagnon. "It could also be that women's life expectancy is not increasing as fast as it used to be."

For instance, smoking rates among women have remained fairly stagnant in recent years, with some reports suggesting they are actually increasing worldwide. Cardiovascular disease and other health problems are also affecting women in greater numbers, perhaps due in part to smoking and other lifestyle factors, Prof. Gagnon said.

Prof Tuokko pointed out that it's important to remember that life expectancy for either gender can only go so high.

"I do think there's an upper limit," she said.

Instead of the instinct to focus primarily on longevity, she highlighted the necessity of thinking about quality of life as people age.

Medical breakthroughs have helped treat people with heart disease, high blood pressure and other health problems that could contribute to shortened lifespan. But there are many other diseases, such as cancer, as well as neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, that take a great toll on society's overall health and longevity, Prof. Tuokko said.

"There will always be some conditions that are age-associated and will emerge later in life, but we want to minimize those as much as possible."

The Statistics Canada report also found the number of deaths in Canada is on the rise, which it attributes to the country's rapidly aging population. More than 235,000 people died in Canada in 2007, an increase of 7,138 or just over three per cent from the year before. Deaths among women rose slightly faster than men.

The infant mortality rate also rose slightly in 2007 from five infant deaths per 1,000 live births to 5.1 deaths in 2007. Prof. Groll said that number has remained fairly stable since the early 1990s.

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