Are women healthier than men?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published August 13, 2021

Key Takeaways

In 1973, Bobby Riggs, a 55-year-old one-time tennis star—and self-proclaimed hustler and male chauvinist—famously stated that the women’s tennis circuit was so inferior to the men’s, that even a male player as old as himself could rout any current female champ.

To prove his point, he defeated Margaret Court (6–2, 6–1), a former #1-ranked player who still holds the Grand Slams record with 24 wins. (Serena Williams holds 23.) But Riggs’ brash chauvinism met its match when the great Billie Jean King took up his challenge. She roundly routed Riggs (6–4, 6–3, 6–3), and took the $100,000 purse in the process. 

The “Battle of the Sexes”—as it was dubbed by the media—was watched by 50 million Americans and 90 million people across the world, making it the most-viewed tennis match ever. It dispelled any claims of men’s de facto superiority in sport and advanced the rights and respect of women athletes everywhere.

According to King, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem. To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.” 

We won’t characterize this as a battle of the sexes, but according to research, there are differences between men and women in terms of health status. The results may surprise you.

Health differences

In a study published in Clinical Chemistry, researchers mined national-level surveys and databases to identify sex differences in mortality, disease prevalence, physical functioning, and physiologic status. They noted that differences varied with epidemiologic and social factors, and varied across time and between countries. 

In all countries surveyed, women outlived men. They also noted that men tend to have more cardiovascular disease, and women exhibit more inflammatory-related disease. Furthermore, men tend to exhibit increased hypertension, whereas women tend to have higher lipid levels.   

In a European survey-based study published in Social Science & Medicine, authors cited a substantial corpus of research indicating that compared with men, women have higher rates of disability, functional limitations, and depression, as well as doing more poorly on physical tests. Furthermore, women struggle more commonly with non-acute disabling health conditions such as arthritis, whereas men are more likely to have life-threatening conditions, such as heart attack.

Self-reporting of health

The authors of the aforementioned European study examined whether men and women’s reporting of health problems affected general health. Some experts believe that women tend to over-report health problems, while men under-report them. They also hypothesize that reporting depends on the level of education. The investigators, however, did not uncover such results.

“After adjusting for reporting heterogeneity, gender differences in both poor and good health widened. However, we found no clear gender-specific patterns in reporting either poor or good health,” the authors wrote. “Our findings also do not provide convincing evidence that education is an important determinant of general health reporting, although the female disadvantage in poor health and the male advantage in good health were more apparent in lower than higher education groups at all ages. The results challenge prevailing stereotypes that women over-report and men under-report health problems and highlight the importance of attending to health problems reported by women and men with equal care.”


One key aspect of health in which women outperform is longevity. According to the US-based, nonprofit Population Reference Bureau, in developed nations, the worldwide average age of death for women is 79 years vs 72 years for men. 

The Bureau attributes these differences in part to behavioral factors, suggesting that males are more likely to smoke than females and are more likely to take risks, which makes them more prone to life-threatening injuries. Biological differences between the sexes also help to explain why women live longer. The authors wrote, “Scientists believe that estrogen in women combats conditions such as heart disease by helping reduce circulatory levels of harmful cholesterol. Women are also thought to have stronger immune systems than men.”

They added, “Researchers have found that the gender gap in life expectancy is smallest for the wealthy and highly educated, suggesting that broadening access to quality health care, diet, and other advantages can help men achieve a level of longevity closer to that of women.”

Bottom line

In the aggregate, in some aspects of health, women fare better, while in others, men do. The issue is complicated, however, with various covariates playing a role, including healthcare accessibility and diet. Importantly, wealth and education can mitigate gender differences in health and longevity, thus nothing is preordained.

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