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Socioeconomic development prolongs women’s lifespan

CHEN DAIYUN and CHEN XI | 2022-03-31 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Older adults share a meal at a local elderly care service center in Xiazhai Village, Jinhua City, east China’s Zhejiang Province, on Aug. 23, 2021. Photo: CFP

After decades of demographic evolution, China’s population has undergone profound changes, among which the longevity of the female population has exceeded that of the male population. This is an important demographic indicator. Based on census data collected since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, this article intends to expound on life expectancy for China’s female population over the years.

Unprecedented changes
According to previous censuses, China’s total population has increased by more than 800 million over the past seven decades, from about 600 million in the first census in 1953 to over 1.4 billion in the seventh census in 2020. In record time, China experienced a population reproduction pattern transformation which took 100 years for Western developed countries to complete. In 1998, China historically transformed the traditional population reproduction pattern of high birth, low death, and high growth, to the modern population reproduction pattern of low birth, low death, and low growth. With this transformation, the whole population’s lifespan was prolonged.
Data has revealed that life expectancy in China, especially among women, is continuously on the rise. Demographically, there are two indicators that demarcate different life expectancies for men and women: one is the difference in average life expectancy between men and women, and the other is the proportion of male and female centenarians or above in the total population as well as the gender ratio change.
The average life expectancy of a population is measured through the average life length of a particular group of individuals born in a given year. By tracking a group of people, born in a particular year, and observing the exact date on which each one of them dies we can calculate the cohort’s life expectancy by simply calculating the average of the ages of all members upon their passing. It is the key metric for assessing population health. It is also a barometer of economic and social development. 
According to previous research, in 1953, the average life expectancy of men and women in China was 44.54 years and 44.58 years, respectively, with women’s expectancies only 0.04 years longer than men. However, in 2010, the average life expectancy of men and women was 72.38 years and 77.37 years, respectively, with women living for 4.99 years longer than men. From 1953 to 2010, the average life expectancy of men increased by 27.84 years and women by 32.79 years. The average increase in life expectancy for women was 73.6%, while the average increase for men was 62.5%.
At the same time, changes in the proportion of the male and female population aged 100 and over, and the gender ratio, became more evident. According to national censuses, in 1953, there were only 1,590 men who were 100 years old or over, accounting for about 5 per million, while there were 1,794 women, accounting for about 6 per million. In 2010, the population aged 100 years or above reached 8,852 males, or about 13 per million, and 27,082 females, or about 42 per million. From 1953 to 2010, the proportion of men aged 100 or over increased by only 8 per million, while that of women increased by 36 per million. The gender ratio of the population aged 100 years and over fell from a ratio of 88.6 to 32.7 during the same period. To clearly explain the ratio, in 1953, 89 men were centenarians for every 100 female centenarians, whereas in 2010, 33 men were centenarians for every 100 women in the same age range. Thus, the gender ratio of the population aged 100 and over has dropped by 63%.
This dataset highlights the historical changes in China’s population. It is safe to say that the changes in population development indicators, especially the life expectancy gap between China’s male and female population, are unprecedented.
Why this happens
Academic research, at home and abroad, has revealed that the difference in male and female lifespans are mainly caused by genetic differences. However, changes in life expectancy differences between men and women also reflect the influence of economic and social development. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, economic and social development has created a healthy living environment and continuously improved the health of the entire population. 
In a way, the gains of economic and social development have benefited women more than men, resulting in a faster reduction in female mortality and a longer life expectancy for women than men. This fully embodies the population genetics principle “population phenotype = genetic type + environment type,” meaning the variation in average life expectancy between male and female populations are subject to changing social environments.
China’s economic and social development has reduced the risk of death within the critical period of the female population’s life cycle. Namely, there are two dangerous periods in the female population’s life cycle that are largely determined by social factors. One is infancy. Social preferences for boys over girls took a toll on female infant mortality levels. Historically, social opinions influenced by traditional mindsets perpetuated the idea that male children were superior to female children, so female infants were often discriminated against or even abandoned, resulting in a higher mortality rate than male infants. Second, pregnancy and childbirth has represented a challenging period for women’s healthcare. The development of medical and health services reduced the maternal mortality of women of childbearing age. 
Hence, we can conclude that gaps in life expectancies of men and women are determined by both genetic differences and social environments. However, the effects of genetic differences are exogenous while changes in social environments appear to have a stronger influence.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the changes in life expectancies of women and men prove that Chinese society’s development has created a favorable environment for the improvement of women’s health and the extension of their lifespan. In practice, the Chinese government stipulated a series of laws, regulations, and policies, to lend social support to the female population and disrupt traditions of male preference that had been in place in this nation for thousands of years. Chinese women then acquired equal rights to education, while the concept of equality between men and women also took root, gradually progressing toward gender equality in the fields of politics, economics, and culture.
The fact that the concept of gender equality reduces mortality rates for the female population can be attributed to three social shifts. In terms of childbirth, many people advocate “having boys and girls is the same” and that “daughters are equal offspring.” Second, in the economic field, there are efforts to protect women’s reproductive rights, promote equal pay for equal work for men and women, and oppose all types of gender discrimination. Third, the idea that “women hold up half the sky” is widely spread, to ensure the equality of women in every sphere of society. 
Gender equality is by all means the root cause of the change we have witnessed in the Chinese life expectancy gender gap. Only by establishing the concept of equality between men and women can we ensure equal education, guarantee an equal economic system, and reinforce equal gender preferences and behaviors at childbirth. Advocates for gender equality also promote modern fertility concepts that highlight having fewer and healthier children, coupled with the improvement of medical and health conditions to sharply reduce infant mortality, in particular, female infant mortality rates, jointly helping the population lifespan gender ratio return to normal. 
In the meantime, economic development and scientific and technological progress have improved medical and health services, bettered the living and working conditions of pregnant and postpartum women, and reduced their maternal mortality rates. 
In addition, Chinese society’s development and the adjustment of birth policies have altered people’s conceptions of childbirth. Fewer and healthier births have further reduced women’s risk of death caused by multiple pregnancies and childbirth, thus reducing the mortality rate for women of childbearing age. 
The combination of these factors ultimately leads to women living longer as society advances. In other words, societal development has provided a suitable social environment for the female population to access their genetic survival advantages, thus resulting in a female longevity social norm.
Today, Chinese women’s sense of gain, happiness, and security rises with each passing day, as the healthy life expectancy ratio for female and male populations returns to a normal social state, one determined by genetic difference. In reality, the average life expectancy of women is longer than that of men, and the proportion of the female population over 100 years old is higher than that of the male population.
Going forward
First of all, the informatization and intelligentization of society fuel trends which degender social roles, and physiological factors are gradually leading differences in men and women’s life expectancies. Women have physiological characteristics that make them more likely to live longer, while men tend to be at a disadvantage in old age. Therefore, on the premise of ensuring gender equality at the institutional level, special attention should be paid to the adult male population in terms of medical care, and the gap between the physiologically disadvantaged (male) population and the advantaged (female) population should be narrowed as far as medically possible.
Second, with the adjustment of the fertility policy, we should further strengthen reproductive healthcare for women of childbearing age. Pregnancy exposes women of reproductive age to greater health risks than the general population, and increased fertility inevitably adds maternal risks, thus negatively affecting the life expectancy of the female population. Therefore, maternal health management services, as a national basic public health service item, should be the top priority of national public health work as we strive to minimize the risk of maternal death. This not only concerns the health of the current productive population, but also affects the health of newborn babies and the realization of a healthy China.
Chen Daiyun is from the School of Political Science and Law at University of Jinan; Chen Xi is from the Institute of Law at Shandong Academy of Social Sciences. 
Edited by YANG XUE