Women are better at surviving starvation and disease than men

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However, a new study defies the belief that men are the stronger ones.

Scientists at Duke University set out to measure the impact of starvation, disease and other hardships on mortality rates among human populations over the last 250 years.

In the Irish potato starvation, a type of mould Phytophora infestans caused crop failures over three years - and life expectancy shrank from 38 years for both sexes, to 18.7 years for men and 22.4 years for women.

In each of the remaining high-mortality populations - the Ukrainian famine of 1933, the Swedish famine of 1772-73, the Icelandic measle epidemics of 1846 and 1882, and the Irish famine of 1845-1849 - women consistently out-survived men, providing further evidence that there is more than environmental or social factors to blame for the gender gap. The data also included victims of starvation in Ireland, Sweden and Ukraine during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the casualties of measles epidemics in 1846 and 1882 in Iceland. It is striking that during epidemics and famines as harsh as those analysed here, newborn girls still survived better than newborn boys'.

"In all populations, they had lower mortality across nearly all ages, and, with the exception of one slave population, they lived longer on average than men".

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Scientists found women were more resilient and lived longer overall - even during good times.

"Even though the crises reduced the female survival advantage in life expectancy, women still survived better than men". Overall, 43 percent of ex-slaves who were encouraged by the USA government to migrate to Liberia died within their first year in Africa because their immune systems were exposed to new diseases.

Life expectancy for baby boys was 1.68 years, compared to 2.23 years for infant girls.

"The data spanned seven populations in which the life expectancy for one or both sexes was a dismal 20 years or less". Research examining life expectancy in Mormon populations and cloistered monks and nuns, where men and women share similar lifestyles but women still outlive men, again suggests there is something biological at play.

"Our results add another piece to the puzzle of gender differences in survival", said researchers led by Virginia Zarulli, Assistant Professor at the Duke University in Durham, US. They pointed out that the female sex hormone oestrogen has anti-inflammatory qualities and has been shown to enhance the immune system's ability to ward off infections.