Women live longer than men partly because their immune systems age more slowly. As the body's defenses become weaker over time, men's increased sensitivity to disease shortens their lifespan.
The immune system protects the body from infection and cancer but causes disease when not properly regulated. The Japanese study set out to investigate the controversial question of whether age-related changes in the immune system could be responsible for the difference in average life expectancy between men and women.
Prof Katsuiku Hirokawa of the Tokyo Medical and Dental University and colleagues analyzed blood samples from 356 healthy men and women aged between 20 and 90.
They measured levels of white blood cells and molecules called cytokines which interact with cells of the immune system to regulate the body's response to disease. In both sexes, the number of white blood cells per person declined with age as expected from previous studies. However, closer examination revealed differences between men and women in two key components of the immune system - T-cells, which protect the body from infection, and B-cells, which secrete antibodies.
The rate of decline of most T-cell and B-cell lymphocytes was faster in men, while men also showed a more rapid age-related decline in two cytokines. Two specific types of immune system cells that attack invaders - CD4 T-cells and natural killer cells - increased in number with age, with a higher rate of increase in women than in men. The researchers believe a person's immunological parameters could provide an indication of their true biological age.
Professor said, "Our findings indicate that the slower rate of decline in these immunological parameters in women than that in men is consistent with the fact that women live longer than do men."