Brussels, 21 Jan 2005
Stories about women outliving their husbands have abounded for centuries. Reasons for this were put down to lifestyle, war and perhaps the labour-intensive work men tended to do in the past. But now British researchers think they have a physiological explanation – women's hearts are stronger.
Sports scientists in the United Kingdom believe they may have an answer to the age-old question of why women live longer than men. No, it is not because men are driven to an early death by nagging, as stereotypical husbands often complain. The answer comes from what the researchers say is the largest study ever undertaken on the effects of ageing on our cardiovascular system.
It has already been shown that, on average, women live longer than men. In fact, women over 60 years old are now the fastest-growing group in today's ageing society. Findings by sports and exercise researchers at Liverpool's John Moores University (LJMU) show that women's longevity may be linked to the way their hearts age – maintaining pumping power as they get older.
David Goldspink, Professor of Cell and Molecular Sports Science at LJMU, says that the power in men's heart falls by 20 to 25% between 18 and 70 years of age. In stark contrast, over the same period there was no age-related decline in the power of the female heart.
"This means that the heart of a healthy 70 year-old women could perform almost as well as a 20 year-old's," Goldspink notes, adding that this dramatic gender difference might explain why women live longer than men.
Since the study began two years ago, Goldspink and a team of scientists at LJMU's Research Unit for Human Development and Ageing have examined over 250 healthy men and women between the ages of 18 and 80 years. Choosing only healthy subjects was critical. The scientists were able to look at the ageing process with less complications brought on by diseases whose incidence tends to increase as we get older. In addition, by studying both men and women at the same time, they could look for either similarities or differences between the two sexes during the ageing process.
Power and performance
The research focused on three key aspects of our cardiovascular system: measuring body composition to establish bone density, muscle mass and the amount and distribution of body fat in each subject; taking blood pressure to assess how fit the people are and how powerful their hearts are at rest and while exercising; and assessing heart performance using ultrasound to give the size of the hearts' chambers, the thickness of the muscular walls and the filling and emptying action.
"We now have a much clearer holistic picture of changes that take place in the human body throughout our life cycle," comments Goldspink. And the good news is that men can improve the health of their heart simply by taking more regular exercise. In a related study, he found that the hearts of veteran male athletes (50 to 70 years-olds) were as powerful as those of inactive 20 year-old male undergraduates.
According to the scientists, engaging in regular aerobic exercise can, therefore, preserve the power and performance of men's ageing hearts. But they warn that women should not rest on their laurels, they also need to exercise regularly to prevent their leg muscles becoming smaller and weaker as they get older.
On the back of these findings, Professor Goldspink is now calling for a major public campaign in the UK to inform people about how much and what kind of exercise they should undertake to age more healthily. Similar political efforts are taking shape at the EU level, with significant funding set aside in the Union's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) for life science research into healthy ageing.
One element of FP6's thematic priority one – 'Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health' – seeks to combat major disease through genomic approaches to medical knowledge and technologies. To do this, it calls on European scientists to develop better strategies for preventing and managing human disease and for improving healthy living and ageing.