“Why do you think you’ll die before me?” my buddy’s wife inquires of my friend, who happens to be a doctor.
Observing my friend in action, I realized that the question took him completely by surprise. I have, however, made that assumption, and I stand by it. As a result, I responded with one word, as matter-of-factly as I possibly could: statistics.
I was aware that women, on average, have longer lives than males. In fact, women account for 57% of all people over the age of 65 in the United States. By the age of 85, women constitute 67 percent of the population. In the United States, women live on average 5 years longer than men, and on average 7 years longer than males throughout the world.
It’s not difficult to notice the disparity between men and women among the elderly. A quick look around the majority of nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the United States will typically reveal the truth: women outweigh men, and the extent of the disparity is often startling. According to the information I’ve received, when a man moves into a residential environment dominated by the senior population, he tends to become popular, which is especially true in cases where he still drives.
Advertisers are well aware of this. In the newspaper lately, I came across an advertisement for a group called “A Place for Mom,” which assists families in finding assisted living or other senior citizen services. And, while they provide services to both men and women, the name of the company reflects the fact that the senior female market is significantly larger than the male market.
So, what is it about men that causes them to die first on average?
There are a variety of reasons why the male-to-female ratio (which is nearly equal in young adulthood) begins to tilt in favor of women as time progresses. What are some of the most influential factors? Men have a tendency to
1. Take more calculated risks. Some of the explanation appears to be due to “biological destiny.” A study found that boys and young men grow the frontal lobe of the brain more slowly than girls and young women, which is the region of the brain that regulates judgment and contemplation of the implications of an action. This is certainly a contributing factor to the fact that boys and men die in car accidents or as a result of violence at a higher rate than females.
2. Increase the number of dangerous jobs. Men outnumber women in some of the most dangerous vocations, such as military combat and firefighting, among others.
3. Heart disease causes people to die more frequently and at a younger age. Heart disease kills 50% more men than women each year, according to the American Heart Association. Part of the explanation for this may be due to the fact that men have lower estrogen levels than women. However, medical hazards such as poorly controlled high blood pressure or unfavorable cholesterol levels may also play a role.
4. Be physically larger than women. Larger animals tend to die at an earlier age than smaller animals across a wide range of species. Although the size of this effect in humans is unknown, it appears to have a negative impact on the longevity of males.
5. Men commit suicide at a higher rate than women. This is true despite the fact that depression is regarded to be more widespread among women and that women are more likely than males to attempt (non-fatal) suicide. Some relate this to men’s predisposition to delay getting treatment for depression, as well as cultural conventions that discourage males from seeking treatment for mental illness in today’s society.
6. Reduce your social interactions. People with fewer and weaker social relationships (including men) tend to have higher death rates, for reasons that are not totally obvious.
7. Stay away from doctors. A recent study conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that males are far less likely than women to skip routine health screenings and are significantly less likely than women to have seen a significant amount of any type during the previous year.
The unequal playing field for boys begins at a young age. The Y chromosome is more prone to mutation than the X chromosome, and because men do not have a second X chromosome, X-linked defects in boys are not “masked” by a second, normal form of the chromosome. Male fetuses have a worse chance of survival in the womb than female fetuses (for uncertain, and probably multiple, reasons). Boys are also more likely than girls to suffer from developmental problems, some of which may result in a shorter life expectancy.
Exactly what can be done to help men live longer lives is still up in the air.
Even while there is little that can be done to change some of these issues, others can be changed. Since men are more likely than women to postpone medical care, encouraging men to disclose symptoms (such as depression) and to seek regular follow-up care for chronic medical conditions (such as high blood pressure) should help to mitigate some of the tendency for them to die earlier.
It’s also worth mentioning that the difference in survival rates between men and women reflects a general trend among big groups of individuals. In fact, a significant number of spouses predecease their husbands. Smoking, diabetes, and having a strong family history of breast cancer are just a few examples of individual risk factors that can counteract the general tendency for women to live longer lives.
Perhaps in the future, we will be more successful in preventing preventable, premature mortality among men (and women) — and, because many of these initiatives will have a greater impact on males, the gender difference among the elderly may gradually diminish as a result. Until then, my wife and I will do everything in our power to maintain our health. Statistics, on the other hand, do not lie. I’m going to die first, most likely.