This year may be the first in which life expectancy is greater for the world’s women than for men, even in the poorest countries.

Researchers making that prediction include Anna Barford, a research fellow at England’s University of Sheffield.

“We will never know with certainty the exact year in which women can expect to live on average longer than men, but this year -- 2006 -- is as likely as any,” Barford and colleagues write in BMJ.

Life expectancy has been greater for women than men in the U.S. and many other countries for some time -- hundreds of years, in some cases. For instance, women have outlived men since 1860 in the Netherlands, 1889 in Italy, and 1751 in Sweden, Barford’s team reports.

But that hasn’t always been true in other countries, especially those with scarce medical resources.

Last Places on Earth Where Men Outlive Women

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported in 2002 that in 2001, women outlived men in all but six countries: Nepal, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Bangladesh, and Swaziland.

That list changed in 2003-2005, when the WHO reported that men were living slightly longer than women in just two countries -- Qatar and the Maldives.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has different records, according to Barford’s team. They checked the CIA’s 2005 World Factbook and found that women outlived men in Qatar and the Maldives but not in some other places on the WHO’s list.

So which group is right? Where are the last places on earth where men live longer than women?

Barford’s team doesn’t go there. They call the CIA’s data source “vague, as befits a somewhat secretive organization.”

Cigarettes Could Change Everything

Medical advances probably account for much of the shift in women’s life expectancy, write Barford and colleagues.

“We tend to forget that in many countries of the world women could expect, until recently, to live fewer years than men and that maternal mortality in particular remains a big killer,” they write, adding that the change happened too quickly to be solely due to biological change.

Another health risk -- smoking -- might stop the trend in its tracks.

“Greater emancipation has freed women to demand better health care and to behave more like men, and most importantly to smoke,” the researchers write.

They write that the global gender gap in life expectancy “may not be a permanent achievement, given that the largest remaining untapped market for cigarettes in the world is made up of women living in poor countries.”

Death Quiz: How Long will You Live Past 50?

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Barford, A. BMJ, April 8, 2006; vol 332: p 808. News release, BMJ.