Understanding why women may age slower than men

telomeres
Human chromosomes (grey) capped by telomeres (white). Credit: PD-NASA; PD-USGOV-NASA

Why do women typically live longer than men? The Keynote Address at The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) Annual Meeting in San Diego, October 3-6, reviews some old and provides some new answers, highlighting the latest studies on the protective effects of sex hormones and estrogen, as well as other tips for slowing the aging process by improving telomere health.

Women have some natural physical advantages as to why they live longer than men. While this gender gap is not fully understood, it is well known that there are more reasons than just the typical riskier behaviors of some men, including smoking and drinking alcohol. It is thought to be, in part, due to estrogen protecting women from heart disease for a longer period in life.

In trying to understand why women age slower than men, researchers have looked at the rate of cellular aging. One of the biological differences from birth is that women have longer telomeres (the endcaps of DNA strands that protect chromosomes from deterioration). Scientists have long understood the importance of telomeres in healthy longevity. More recent studies have focused on those factors that affect and what can be done to protect them.

In her Keynote Address at the upcoming NAMS Annual Meeting entitled "Healthy Longevity and Telomeres: What Does Sex Have to Do With It?" Dr. Elissa Epel from the University of California in San Francisco will provide a detailed look at those factors that modulate length, with special emphasis on women's reproductive health, hormones and mental health. Longer telomeres predict less cardiovascular disease and, in many instances, a longer life for both men and .

"Some experimental studies suggest estrogen exposure increases the activity of telomerase, the enzyme that can protect and elongate telomeres," says Dr. Epel. She warns, however, that telomeres can be shortened prematurely by stress and chronic or childhood psychological adversity.

"We look forward to what promises to be a fascinating presentation with implications for slowing telomere attrition and age-related conditions," says Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, NAMS executive director.


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