It’s a sad sort of gender gap: On average, women are ill for more of their lives than men – 22 years, compared to 17. Why?
Marc Luy at the Vienna Institute of Demography had a theory: It’s because women also live longer than men, and so have more time to get chronic illnesses. And he had an unusual way to test it: studying the monasteries and convents of Germany and Austria where, in some of the communities, the average lifespan is more than 80 years.
“Normally it is hard to control for environmental factors and separate them from biological factors when comparing men and women,” he explains. “But people in cloistered communities live very similar lives regardless of gender.”
So Luy began trawling the archives of religious orders to find out how long monks and nuns live. Through the landmark HEMOX project, funded by the European Research Council, he also surveyed almost 1,200 members of Catholic orders to find out how they live – the first holistic health surveys of their kind. Are cloister residents living with disease and disability? How would they rate their own health? Luy has answers to questions never asked before, and his findings could spark a rethink of the gender/health paradox.
Using the results of their survey and hard data on life expectancy from the excellent cloister records, Luy and his team calculated healthy life years for nuns and monks. They found that monks and nuns live longer than people outside the cloister, but also spend a larger proportion of their lives with chronic health impairments. Significantly, while monks live longer than other men, they also suffer more non-life-threatening chronic disease. Their health stories are not unlike those of an average woman – living longer than most men but in worse health.
“We found that this disadvantage of women – whether in a convent or not – is in fact mostly a direct consequence of their advantage in longevity,” says Luy. “It reduces to a minimum when mortality differences between women and men are controlled for.”
So what about the rest of us?
Well, perhaps the low-meat diet, manual labour and humble obedience prescribed by St Benedict’s Rule will become this year’s big lifestyle trend. For now, Luy draws an optimistic conclusion to his latest findings:
“The most important lesson we can learn from the nuns and monks study is that most of our longevity and health can be influenced by our own lifestyles, not just our gender.”
Luy’s new research is among several studies into longevity – how long and how well we live – that have been funded over the past decade by the European Research Council, the EU’s premiere agency for frontier research. More on his work, and that of other ERC grantees, can be found in a series of reports on longevity just launched on ERC=Science², an initiative to communicate the results of the agency’s research.
About the European Research Council: Supporting top researchers from anywhere in the world
The ERC's mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-driven frontier research across all fields, on the basis of scientific excellence. The ERC expects that its grants will help to bring about new and unpredictable scientific and technological discoveries - the kind that can form the basis of new industries, markets, and broader social innovations of the future. ERC grants are awarded through open competition to projects headed by starting and established researchers, irrespective of their origins, who are working or moving to work in Europe. The sole criterion for selection is scientific excellence.