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Why Do Women Live Longer?

A new book coauthored by CAS’s Patricia Rieker explores the differences between men’s and women’s health issues

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Men die younger than women, but women are sicker when they die, and scientists don’t have an explanation for this disparity. Patricia Rieker, a College of Arts and Sciences adjunct professor of sociology, says researchers must look at biology, sociology, and public health simultaneously to find the answer.

With longtime colleague Chloe Bird, an associate behavioral scientist at RAND Graduate School, Rieker has written Gender and Health: The Effects of Constrained Choices and Social Policies (Cambridge University Press, 2008), which addresses the health issues of men and women.

One explanation of why men die younger than women is that they are more likely to smoke or drink to excess, Rieker says. “What we’re interested in is what’s behind that behavior,” she says. “The gender differences have never gone away, and we were never able to fully explain what created those differences.”

Rieker cites “constrained choices” as a possible way to account for the differences. “Some prior decisions affect the kind of options and opportunities you have later,” she says. The reasoning is that any decision, from getting married to obtaining an advanced degree to exercising, can affect your health.

Additionally, employers, family members, and friends play a large role in a person’s health. When comparing the United States to other countries, Rieker and Bird found that the gap between life expectancies for men and women changes based on the typical social network and social policies in that country.

Rieker and Bird hope the book will create a greater dialogue across biomedical and social sciences and make people more aware that their decisions have a long-lasting effect on their health.

Rebecca McNamara can be reached at ramc@bu.edu.

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