The Inner Strength That Keeps Women Going
Anil Anathaswany
New Scientist Magazine
(September 12, 2001)

The key to women's longevity may lie with their stronger immune systems. Traditionally, men's shorter lives have been put down to the greater risks they take, but researchers have come up with a tantalizing new theory after finding that women produce more new immune cells than men.

It's the thymus gland that's responsible for churning out the T cells that fight off infections, but it wastes away with age. To find out what effect this deterioration has on the production of T cells, Richard Aspinall, Jeffery Pido-Lopez, and their team at the Imperial College School of Medicine in London tracked the number of new T cells produced in 46 healthy men and women between the ages of [20 and 62]. While the thymus made fewer new cells with age in both sexes, women still had higher levels of new T cells than men of the same age.

To check if this advantage did give women more protection against infections, the researchers looked at deaths in Britain from pneumonia and influenza between [1993 and 1998]. They found that more men than women died of these diseases, and the trend mirrored the difference in thymus activity between the sexes. "There are a host of factors that could contribute to susceptibility to infection, of which thymic output might be one," says Aspinall.

"During old age, when old T cells are not as effective, a higher replacement of old T cells with new ones would be a bonus," says Pido-Lopez. But that doesn't exclude the risk theory altogether. "Risk can explain anything from number of car crash deaths to deaths from colon cancer," says Aspinall "But there are probably other factors [such as thymic output] that contribute to the difference in longevity."

Ref: Clinical and Experimental Immunology, Vol. 125, p. 409 (September 2001).