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Why the centenarian gender gap exists – and whether men will catch up

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If living to 100 is on your bucket list, keep in mind that the centenarian lifestyle may have its ups and downs.

Yes, you can join the centenarian club – the fastest-growing population in Canada, according to the 2016 census, released Wednesday.

But chances are you'll be living in a nursing home. Your golfing friends may be long gone. And depending on your sexual preference, dating could be tough.

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By the 100-year mark, Canadian women outnumber men more than five to one. As of 2016, Canada had 8,230 centenarians. Just 1,564 were men.

Guys may like the sound of that ratio. But imagine having to ask yourself, "Does she only want me because I'm alive?"

Read also: Census 2016: The growing age gap, gender ratios and other key takeaways

The question of how to enjoy life and maintain meaningful relationships when we hit the triple digits will affect more of us in the decades to come. By 2051, the number of centenarians could reach nearly 40,000 – about five times higher than in 2016, Statistics Canada projects.

The Globe and Mail spoke to specialists in population health and geriatric medicine about why the gender gap is so wide for centenarians – and whether men's longevity will catch up.

Different habits, risks

In the generation born a century ago, women tended to lead healthier lifestyles than men, said Douglas Manuel, senior scientist at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.

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In men, high rates of smoking began after the First World War. Women didn't take up smoking en masse until much later. Despite Hollywood scenes of flappers with cigarettes, "it really picked up in Canada in the 1960s, with women's lib."

Compared to occupations for women born before 1920 – typically, homemaking or secretarial work – jobs held by men were often physically dangerous. "Whether it's manufacturing, fishing, lumber or farming, these are all high-injury occupations."

Men of this generation were more likely to die of cardiovascular disease or smoking-related cancers. The women who outlived them, however, tend to have more arthritis, chronic pain and problems with mobility, Manuel pointed out.

He quoted his late mother as saying, "Women are living longer – and it feels longer, too."

The evolution theory

Because of childbearing and child-rearing, "there's strong evolutionary pressure for old age in women," said Dawn Bowdish, an associate professor of immunology at McMaster University who has researched aging and immunity.

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Children require more time to raise than other mammals, resulting in a need for extended caregiving, she explained. Population data from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries show that women who lived in close proximity to their mothers tended to have more children than those who did not.

The need for extended caregiving may explain menopause, she added. Because women stop having babies, they can direct their energies into helping with the grandkids. Hormonal differences, combined with other aspects of women's physiologies, "predispose women to live longer than men."

Bridging the gap

Modern medicine has given male longevity a boost, increasing men's chances of hitting 100 down the road. Deaths from cancer and cardiovascular disease in men are decreasing with the development of better treatments, noted Dr. Larry Dian, a specialist in geriatric medicine at the University of British Columbia.

Disability from chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes is another driver of lower longevity in men. "The good news of medicine is that in some cases, we can delay disability." As men exercise more, avoid smoking and control their blood pressure, he said, "theoretically the gender gap should decrease."

Life after 100

Centenarians may need help with everyday tasks such as getting dressed and may not be as sharp as they used to be. But "age does not cause dementia," Dian said. Apart from decreasing mobility, "there's nothing special about being 100." Like younger retirees, centenarians appreciate social contact, and may yearn for a new flame after a husband or wife has passed away. If the person has significant physical or cognitive decline, sexual activity may be a thing of the past. But, he added, "the human desire for friendships, close relationships and romantic partners continues."

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