The narrowing gap between the sexes, revealed in figures published yesterday, suggests that, although the population is getting healthier, women are making slower progress than men. In 1974, life expectancy for a girl at birth was 6.4 years longer than a boy, but by 2002 the gap had closed to 4.5 years.

The Office of Health Economics (OHE), a research body funded by the pharmaceutical industry, saidwomen were living more like men - smoking, drinking and working excessive hours - so they were sharing the health consequences.

Jon Sussex, associate director of OHE, said: "If we look at what happened over the past 30 years, there is very good news on the circulatory diseases [heart disease and stroke] which are down by more than half in each sex. But on the cancers, male cancers are down more than in females." Deaths from lung cancer, fell 51 per cent in men but rose 45 per cent in women between 1973 and 2003.

Mr Sussex said men would never overtake women in life expectancy (80.7 years for girls born in 2002 and 76.2 for boys). "But in time we would expect men and women to converge."