Who Fears Aging More, Women or Men?

A man and woman laying in bed smiling for the camera.

Age is not a particularly interesting subject. Anyone can get old. All you have to do is live long enough.

~ Groucho Marx


Aging in Place

I shared an article with H.R. Moody Ph.D., with the intriguing title, MEN FEEL BETTER ABOUT AGING THAN WOMEN, STUDY SHOWS. The article was based on a study from Tokyo’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, published Wednesday in the journal PLoS ONE looked at the gender disparity in individual attitudes toward longevity in Japan. This paragraph provides the basic premise:

The experience of aging may depend on your gender – and we’re not just talking about the fact that women are the target for most anti-aging elixirs and cosmetics, or the fact older men are traditionally seen as authority figures in society. Rather, there is now quantifiable evidence to suggest that men really do have a sunnier outlook on aging than do women – and in turn, they are also more interested in staying alive for longer. This may be the first empirical study to examine individual attitudes toward aging in our super-aging society.

Lots to unpack here, but let’s read Moody’s take on the article first:

I’m generally skeptical about all claims about the world based on self-report: we learn very little about nutrition or about people going to church by asking people to report what they’ve done: they don’t remember, they don’t tell the truth, etc. (And we can prove what I’m saying in a variety of ways: my skepticism about self-reports is hardly a fast-breaking story).

Why can’t we learn how people feel by asking them? Interesting question, and it doesn’t have an obvious answer. Since I’m a believer in the Unconscious (I’m writing a book on dreams and aging) I tend to look for answers in different way than what comes from self-report (and survey research). For example, I’m not at all sure how we find out about racism with the different methodologies deployed today. As the old saying goes, “Denial isn’t just the name of a river in Egypt.”

In the past few years, many Americans have decided that what they “know” about racism is not quite what they thought. However, I am not at all a “post-modernist.” I believe in facts: for example, it is a fact that today at least women on average outlive men (the opposite was true through most of recorded history). There are many different explanations for this fact (e.g., immune system differences, etc.) but there a few absolutely convincing explanations. By absolutely convincing, I mean, e.g., that radiation exposure can cause cancer. It is not just a correlation between radiation and cancer.

It may be that men are more satisfied with aging for the same reason rich people are less likely to have a variety of illnesses. Their privileged position protects them so of course, they’re happier. But that may not be the explanation either. I don’t have an explanation. We have no overall explanation for aging (just as we don’t for sleep). There are other facts, such as the accelerating expansion of the universe, for which the phrase “dark energy” is not an explanation but simply a rephrasing of the observation (i.e., a pseudo explanation).

As for men versus women (to adopt a binary division for the moment), I will only conclude with the question: “Why are there 6 million sperm but only one egg?” Answer: “Because the sperm won’t ask for directions.” No, we won’t include the joke in the next edition of our textbook, but we probably do need to look more carefully at the subjective version of “life satisfaction” among men and women.


Self-Report is Key

Moody’s main point, and it is spot on, is to read any studies on aging with a critical eye. The essential factor here, as he points out, is self-report. The study is also based in Japan, a so-called “super-aged society” with the percentage of the elderly (aged > = 65 years) in the overall population reaching 28% in 2018 and is expected to exceed 38% in 2065. The average life expectancy continues to increase during the past decades and has reached 81.3 years and 87.3 years for men and women in 2018, respectively, according to the study. So, the area of inquiry has cultural and political significance.

For brevity’s sake I will cover the cliff notes version here (for a more detailed analysis see the study), the individual anticipation for longevity was surveyed in the individual questionnaire, with four scaled options “1. Strongly agree, 2. Somewhat agree, 3. Somewhat disagree, 4. Strongly disagree” to the question “Living long is a good thing”. The answers were then dichotomized into strongly agree / somewhat agree versus strongly disagree / somewhat disagree in multilevel analysis. They analyzed 9,446 men and 10,354 women aged above 18 years living in 300 municipalities of Japan. In a total of 19,800 adult participants, those inclining with the statement “longevity is a good thing” accounted for 68.8%.

Conclusion statement from the study: In general, men have higher proportion of the positive statement on longevity compared to their female counterparts.

Key Finding: The research seems to suggest that one of the main factors contributing to male’s greater satisfaction in old age has to do with compressing morbidity–or staving off disease in advanced age. The study shows that women suffer more comorbidities (chronic diseases) than men and this determines, in large part, how they report their longevity experience.

In addition, this INVERSE article by Elana Spivack reports a similar cross-cultural finding by Stacy Andersen a professor at Boston University School of Medicine. Anderson was not involved in this study but she too studies people in the U.S. who live to be 100, and she was surprised to find that she’s seen similar results in her work. “I wouldn’t say there were findings that surprised me, it more confirmed things that we would expect,” Andersen says. “I was surprised that the findings are so similar between the two countries.”

Final thoughts, again there are more moving parts to the study’s conclusions and other contributing factors to life satisfaction gender differences in old age, but gender health disparities loom large.


4 take away points:

1). Read any self-reporting study with a critical eye, they are notorious for validity issues 2) Cross-cultural differences can be similar but must always be considered (seems obvious) 3) Men get old, but women get older 4) Taking care of your health now will pay off in life-satisfaction dividends down the road.

Gerontophobia: The Fear of Aging

Note: The reason (study found) women live longer with chronic diseases is because they survive them into old age.

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