When it comes to survival in the most extreme conditions women really are the strongest sex, a study of famines, epidemics and slavery has found.
It is well known that women are the ‘life expectancy champions’ – living longer than men in every country in the world.
But to see if this holds true when death rates are ‘extraordinarily high’, researchers compared the survival rates of males and females in the most ‘horrific’ situations.
The researchers from the University of Southern Denmark looked at some tragic historical events when average life expectancy dropped below 20 years.
Known as ‘high-mortality populations’, researchers looked at seven time periods when human lives were wiped out by starvation, disease and violence.
These included the 1933 Ukraine famine in the Soviet Union in which four million people died; the 1845 Irish potato famine; life expectancy of slaves in Trinidad in 1813; the Swedish famine of 1772-1773; survival rates of freed slaves from the US settling in Liberia between 1820 and 1843 and a deadly measles epidemics in Iceland in 1842 and 1882.
Researchers analysed records of births and deaths to calculate whether males or females lived longer.
The researchers, from the Max Planck Institute in Odense, southern Denmark and colleagues reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “The conditions experienced by the people in the analyzed populations were horrific.
“Even though the crises reduced the female survival advantage in life expectancy, women still survived better than men.”
They added: “In all populations, they had lower mortality across almost all ages, and, with the exception of one slave population, they lived longer on average than men.”
The authors said that in the case of the slaves of Trinidad young adult men may have had a higher survival rate than young adult women ‘because a premium was placed’ on the survival of male slaves who sold for higher prices.
In Liberia in 1820, freed American slaves were encouraged to migrate back to Africa. But around 43 per cent died in their first year. Life expectancy was staggeringly low – 1.68 years for men and 2.23 years for women.
The authors write: “Even in Liberia, the population with the lowest life expectancy, newborn girls were hardier than newborn boys,” lending support to the idea there is a ‘biological underpinning’ of the female survival advantage.
In the Irish potato famine, 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 the Ukrainian famine – caused by a disastrous collectivisation of agriculture – life expectancy dropped from 41.58 to 7.3 years for men, and from 45.93 years for women to 10.9 years.
In Trinidad – the only colony controlled directly from London – birth and death registers of slaves show that life expectancy varied from between 15.18-19.45 for males, and 13.21-20.58 for females.
The planters of Trinidad rejected in 1832 a document by the British governor which proposed a day off to permit religious instruction and the abolition of the whip – the planters argued the whip was necessary for discipline, and time off for religion would encourage idleness.
In Iceland, life expectancy dropped from 35.35 years to 17.86 for males, and from 40.81 years to 18.82 for females. Many of the people in Iceland died of complications of measles, including dysentery and bronchitis.
During Sweden’s last major famine, in 1771, abnormal weather resulted in widespread crop failures and life expectancy dropped to 17.15 years for males and 18.79 for females.
( GUARDIAN )