Science

The Weaker Sex…

… may be men, in some cases. No, this isn’t some sort of militant feminist kick-em-in-the-balls kind of post. I’m referring to the health problems faced by men and the fact that guys appear to kick it a lot more often and a lot sooner than women. This editorial from the New York Times presents some interesting ideas about the lack of male-only tests performed today, despite the fact that they may have a higher chance of contracting a number of nasty diseases.

The author, Dr. Marianne Legato, cites evidence that women have stronger immune systems and less chance of suffering from coronary heart disease. Legato states that more male fetuses are miscarried, and male children and teens are more likely to take risks and commit suicide. She suggests that these gender differences should be studied more intently with the goal of increasing the length and quality of life for men.

Legato believes that the lack of funding on such studies is due in part to the backlash caused by years of researchers ignoring the particular problems that affect women. Here’s where I disagree with her:

Perhaps the reason many societies offer boys nutritional, educational and vocational advantages over girls is not because of chauvinism — it’s because we’re trying to ensure their survival.

I can’t speak for many societies (okay, technically I can’t speak for any societies), but isn’t there a common perception that men are tougher than women, and therefore don’t need the same level of treatment? It’s even referenced in Legato’s playful title. It seems illogical to suggest that despite this overwhelming perception (be it right or wrong), we purposely have given men better treatment because we’re more worried about them. The much more likely scenario is that the focus on men’s health over women is much more due to the centuries of mysogeny that we went through before finally achieving some sort of balance.

My only other criticism comes from the author’s quip about depression:

While depression is said to be twice as frequent in women as in men, I’m convinced that the diagnosis is just made more frequently in women, who show a greater willingness to discuss their symptoms and to ask for help when in distress. Once, at a dinner party, I asked a group of men whether they believed men were depressed as often as women, but were simply conditioned to be silent in the face of discomfort, sadness or fear. “Of course!” replied one man. “Why do you think we die sooner?”

To be “convinced” that the numbers are even based upon a dinner party conversation is frighteningly fallacious. Her hypothesis is an interesting one, but to dismiss actual research in the face of anecdotal evidence is a tad silly.

All in all, she makes a good point — as I wrote last week, there are major physiological differences between the genders. True equality of the sexes should result in an honest look at which health problems need to be addressed, regardless of which section of the populace is affected.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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18 Comments

  1. Eddie Izzard has a routine about this in one of his shows — legions of old women defying the reaper, leaping over his scythe using their secret hopscotch skills while declaiming, "I'm eighty-two!" Meanwhile, all the old men keel over obligingly at about 65.

  2. Interesting article… I can firmly say that in my own experience (as a male of the species) depression does seem to occur in men (my friends) fairly regularly – I think we tend to handle it differently though. Us guys – when younger – tend to get all neanderthal when depressed. We go out and drink ourselves stupid(er) or play a violent game of some sort (like bar fighting) until we are no longer depressed. As we get older we mellow a bit and tend to stick to a few too many drinks and good bout of male bonding with our buddies (poker night is common).

    I agree completely that the mysogney that is rampant throughout human history plays a big role in the disparate amounts of attention paid to men's versus women's health. I also think that men tend to die younger due to our tendancy towards stupid macho behaviour – we don't go to the doctor as often because it might be viewed as weakness… so we end up dieing of things that could have been easily diagnosed and treated had they been detected early. Heart disease and prostate cancer come to mind. Of course a less invasive method of early detection for prostate cancer might go a long way towards increasing survival of that one!

    But really, alot of us men die doing stupid things – far more than women it seems. As an example I was just reading about how motorcycle deaths in California at a new high not sen since before the helmet law was enacted. Most of those deaths are middle aged men (empty nesters was the term used) looking for a new thrill now that the kids are out of the house. They go out and buy a powerful motorcycle and don't have the reflexes or the expereience to make up for the lack of those reflexes to be able to handle a motorcycle that powerful – it's a recipe for disaster. We (men) do lot's of stupid things like this compared to women.

    I think it also likely that our higher muscle mass leads to a shorter lifespan. Extra muscle equates into a higher metobolism which probably resultsin a shorter lifespan. We seem to be designed to live hard and die young – ah well, I say enjoy the ride!

  3. Stark,

    As another male of the species, I agree with all your points save for the last–do you have any evidence for more muscle mass equating to shorter lifespan? Annecdotally at least, the opposite seems to be true, but I'd love to see some evidence one way or the other.

  4. Low-calorie diets and self-denial are correlated with longevity. Women starve themselves, so they live longer. They also menstruate, which means they're more-or-less anemic for 35 years or so. Men can get the same health benefits of chronic anemia by regularly donating blood (saving lives and not having cramps is just a happy bonus).

    Calorie restriction=long life is a well-established theory, menstruation=long life is still speculative (but Google it anyways, it's interesting).

  5. Bruce,

    Actually I stated that wrong – I should have said out that the males typically higher caloric intake (which I attribute, perhaps incorrectly, to greater muscle mass to support) is generally accepted to equate to shorter lifespan. I made the logical leap in my mind that the reason for our greater caloric intake is muscleature and therefore that was the root cause of earlier death – bad practice I know. Of course it could just be that we're a gluttonous lot too! :)

    Ashley has said it already and better than I could have.

    -Stark

  6. Male bravado could be statistically significant in diagnosis of depression. It is a valid hypothesis worthy of more study. Perhaps Dr. Legato does jump the gun in embracing it, but it shouldn't be dismissed either.

    "In short, we’re doomed before we’re even born, us men."

    No we aren't. I find this line of reasoning very annoying, especially given its popularity. It is a medical problem, just like it was a medical problem that too many women died in childbirth. They used to argue that was "natural" too just like people do now when they shrug their shoulder at men dying sooner. Why was it wrong then but okay now?

  7. Yes, men get depressed and have a hard time talking about it. Thus it has a higher incidence of going untreated.

    I worked in an actuarial group for a major life insurance company years ago and the mortality statistics were very interesting. Men's mortality (probability of dying) is higher than women at just about all ages. In addition from about 16 to 35 there is a thing called the "accidential death hump". For men in those ages the mortality rises sharply at age 16 and then starts to fall at about age 25. Of course, at age 30 it resumes its upward march. :( This sharp 9 year rise is mainly due to accidents and not natural causes. The life insurance rate, specifically 1 year term, doesn't rise and then fall during those years because the insurance companies smooth the mortality to make it a monotonic increasing value. (also in the early years you have expenses which are much higher than mortality costs and you have just underwritten the policy so you have better information and thus lower or more accurate mortality estimates. CSO tables – comisioners standard ordinary – are generally ultimate mortality rates for the population in general. In underwriting you start with select rates because you just had the person take a physical, ran a DMV report – speeding tickets can cost you more – and you know their current medical information (MIB) and their vocation and avocations.)

    Traditionally most insurance companies treated women's mortality the same as me with a 3 year set back. (eg a women age 25 were priced as men age 22.) That sounds good, but not if the women age 22 is getting charged for a male accidental death hump. NOW sued some major insurance companies on this particular issue. (The insurance companies hadn't even considered this problem with the 3 year set back policy.) Most insurance companies use seperate male female tables. In some states they are mandated to use unisex tables. That sounds fair, but unisex mortality tables are just blends of male and female tables in some sort of ratio. The insurance company creates the unisex table based upon the blend of business they think they are going to get. (eg 80% male, 20% female or 90% male and 20 % female)

  8. TheCzech: Did you even glance at the Klein 2000 paper? Before males are born, they are affected by testosterone etc's harmful effects on the immune system and on other gene expression. It's not a "medical" problem, it's a physiological problem; it's a side-effect of the proportion of hormones that a male produces.

    "I find this line of reasoning very annoying, especially given its popularity." Yeah, curse those popular opinons that have actual research behind them. What do those science guys know, huh?

  9. JF:

    "Did you even glance at the Klein 2000 paper?"

    So the first thing out of your mouth in response is a personal attack. Guess you put me in my place. Nice. I can see already this is going to be a productive discussion.

    "It’s not a “medical” problem, it’s a physiological problem; it’s a side-effect of the proportion of hormones that a male produces."

    And then we graduate into a semantic slapdown with a touch of straw man for flavor.

    Are you actually arguing against my stated view that health problems in men should be treated as something to be overcome by medical science just like health problems in women instead of shrugging our shoulders and declaring men to be "doomed"? If so, why don't you address that? If not, why are you arguing with me at all?

  10. Okay, cool it guys. If you want to have it out, I suggest taking it to the forum, where it's a bit easier to quote one another, post links as back-up, and get a good dialogue going. But yeah, try to drop some of the vitriol. A little vitriol is fine, though, and keeps things interesting.

  11. I'm arguing with you about your brutal and abrupt "No we aren't." Talk about a slapdown, semantic or otherwise!

    The fact is: Yes, yes we are. The odds are stacked against males from the moment the Y-chromosome starts its expression and stimulates the production of those harmful hormones. That is what my parting comment implied: the reduction in life-expectancy begins incredibly early for males. It was not meant to be a suggestion that we abandon the issue/problem or "[shrug] our shoulders". It was a comment based on the findings presented in the paper I linked to.

  12. JF:

    Well, this explains all the sementic arguments since there was never anything other than a semantic issue at stake.

    Odds stacked against you is not the same thing as doomed. Doomed, by definition, implies fatalism. When you are doomed, nothing can be done. Since you have specifically said you are not suggesting we abandon the issue, you are not fatalistic, therefore you don't believe we are doomed either. You, as you directly said, believe we have the odds stacked against us. So do I. We don't disagree on any actual substance at all. It was all just wordplay.

  13. Males are doomed for extinction before women. Why? The answer lies in gene pair 23, better known as the sex chromosomes. As every geneticist knows, gene pairs naturally undergo a process called "crossing over." This process is essential to the combination and self-repair of chromosomes.

    A woman's paired X chromosomes are able to perform "crossing over", thus keeping the genes in tiptop shape. The chromosomes of the male's 23rd chomosome pair are not identical, and therefore cannot undergo "crosing over."

    Over time, the genes in the Y chromosome deteriorate (mind you, this is a very slow process, and mutations in the Y chromosome, albeit they are irreparable, do not happen throughout the whole body. It usually only happens with one cell), and in a few hundred thousand years from now, the Y chromosome will have deteriorated so much that most males born will be sterile.

    Because the body only makes as many sex cells as it needs, the gonads do not seem to have much trouble. However, in animals such as chimpanzees, which have sex much more often than most non-American humans, the gonads make more sperm cells, allowing mutations to happen more frequently.

    The Y chromosome of the male chimpanzee, scientists have noticed, have deteriorated more than the human Y chromosome. Therefore, the less sex men have, the longer the human race will last. sounds counterintuitive, huh?

    Thank you for your time,

    Doni, Lord of All Things Shiny, Wizzard of Chutney, Male Doomed to Extinction

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