The authors hypothesize the survival rate of young adult male Trinidadian slaves exceeded that of young women because they held a higher economic value, placing a premium on their lives.
Analysis of three centuries of historical data showed women are more likely than men to survive famines and epidemics. In times of adversity, newborn girls are more likely to survive than newborn boys.
Researchers say the life expectancy gender gap is at least partially explained by biological differences, as behavioral differences between male and female newborns are minimal.
The study findings appear in the early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark looked at historical data for men and women who endured starvation, disease outbreaks and being sold into slavery.
Case studies included the Irish starvation of 1845-1849, the Iceland measles epidemics of 1846 and 1882, and the experiences of freed Liberian slaves returning to Africa from the U.S. in the early 19th century, where they encountered a very different disease climate which killed many.
Life expectancy for both sexes dropped from 38 years, to 18.7 years for men and 22.4 years for women during the crisis, which claimed about one million lives.
In Liberia, for example, freed American slaves who relocated to the West African country in the 1800s experienced the highest mortality rates ever recorded. Babies born during that time rarely made it past their second birthday.
In general, the researchers discovered that women lived longer than men by an average of six months to almost four years.
Across modern populations, women outlive men in nearly all instances, with life expectancy for English women being 83.1 years, compared to 79.5 years for men (the figure for Scotland is 81.2 years for women and 77.1 years for men).
In Europe, the life expectancy of a group of people living in Ireland was cut short by more than 15 years due to an extensive crop failure.
Girls living in Ukraine during the 1933 starvation had a mortality rate of 10.85, while the boys lived to the average age of 7.3. Newborn girls are hardier than newborn boys.
Scientists think genetic and hormonal differences may play a role, as previous studies have shown estrogen to help the immune system fend off disease.
Instead, the female advantage in times of crisis may be largely due to biological factors such as genetics or hormones.
"Our results add another piece to the puzzle of gender differences in survival", said researchers led by Virginia Zarulli, Assistant Professor at the Duke University in Durham, US.