Physical activity, weight and height may influence women’s lifespan much more than men’s, new research suggests.
In an observational study, women taller than 175 centimetres were 31% more likely to live to 90 years compared to women shorter than 160 centimetres, but there was no association between height and lifespan seen among the men.
For physical activity, 60 minutes of daily exercise was optimal for increasing a woman’s likelihood of living to 90, but men had to work out for 90 minutes plus.
The study, by Lloyd Brandts and Piet van den Brandt from the Maastricht University Medical Centre in The Netherlands, is published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
Previous research has looked at the associations between weight (BMI or body mass index), physical activity and reaching old age, but most studies have combined both sexes, or focused exclusively on men.
To explore possible differences further, Brandts and van den Brandt analysed data from the Netherlands Cohort Study (NLCS), which included more than 120,000 men and women aged between 55 and 69 when it began in 1986.
The 7807 study participants (3646 men and 4161 women aged between 68 and 70) had provided detailed information in 1986 on their then weight and height, their weight when aged 20, and their leisure time physical activity.
These activities were grouped into categories of daily quotas: less than 30 minutes; 30 to 60 minutes; and 90 minutes or more. Participants were then monitored until death or the age of 90.
The researchers considered potentially influential factors, such as whether participants were current or former smokers, how much they drank, their educational attainment, and usual energy intake.
In all, 433 men (16.7%) and 944 women (34.4%) survived to the age of 90. Women who did were on average taller, had weighed less at the start of the study, and had put on less weight since the age of 20 than those who were shorter and heavier.
When it came to physical activity levels, men who clocked up over 90 minutes a day were 39% more likely to reach 90 than those who did less than 30 minutes; and every extra 30 minutes was associated with a 5 % increase.
But this wasn’t the case for women. There seemed to be an optimal threshold at around 60 minutes a day.
The researchers stress that as this was an observational study it couldn’t establish cause, and that information on body size and physical activity was volunteered rather than objectively measured.
But the findings are based on large numbers of people, all of whom were similar in age, which strengthens the results, they point out, adding that their study is one of only a few to differentiate lifestyle factors potentially associated with a long life between men and women.
Nick Carne is the editor of Cosmos Online and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.