May 10, 2006

Women will live longer than men.

Will this ever change? It's so deeply embedded:
[Daniel J. Kruger, a research scientist in the University of Michigan] School of Public Health and the Institute for Social Research] and co-author Randolph Nesse, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the Evolution and Human Adaptation Program, argue that the difference in life expectancy stems from the biological imperative of attracting mates.

"This whole pattern is a result of sexual selection and the roles that males and females play in reproduction," Kruger said, "Females generally invest more in offspring than males and are more limited in offspring quantity, thus males typically compete with each other to attract and retain female partners."

For example, in common chimps, the greatest difference in mortality rates for males and females occurs at about 13 years of age, when the males are just entering the breeding scene and competing aggressively for social status and females.

From the tail of the peacock to the blinged-out SUV, males compete aggressively for female attention, and that costs them something. In nature, it means riskier physiology and behavior for the males, such as putting more resources into flashy plumage or engaging in physical sparring.

And even in modern life, where most dueling is a form of entertainment, male behavior and physiology is shortening their lifespans relative to women, Kruger said. In fact, modern lifestyles are actually exacerbating the gap between male and female life expectancies.

Male physiology, shaped by eons of sexual competition, is putting the guys at a disadvantage in longevity. Male immune systems are somewhat weaker, and their bodies are less able to process the fat they eat, Kruger said. And behavioral causes---smoking, overeating, reckless driving, violence---set men apart from most women. "Because mortality rates in general are going down, behavioral causes of death are ever more prevalent," Kruger said.

Looking at human mortality rates sliced by socioeconomic status shows that the gender gap is affected by social standing. Human males in lower socio-economic levels tend to have higher mortality rates than their higher-status peers. The impact of social standing is greater on male mortality than on female mortality, Kruger noted, partially because males who have a relatively lower status or lack a mate engage in a riskier pattern of behaviors in an attempt to get ahead, he said.
Clearly, the message to guys should be to put this competitive urge into the pursuit of economic success. The risks don't put you in physical danger, and wealth not only makes you attractive to females, but it will buy you living conditions and medical care that can prolong your life. So why are so many fewer males pursuing the higher education that has so much to do with economic success? I suppose this drive that evolution produced makes it harder for them to put their efforts into the long years of schooling.


yetanotherjohn said...

Your asking the males in their late teens to think with their big head and not their little head. At a time when there are lots, though by no means all, females who will pander to their little head desires. Add to that the "social status" in high school doesn't attach to getting straight A's as compared to being on the football team or driving a "hot" car. Sorry, reality is interfering with your utopia.

Slocum said...

So why are so many fewer males pursuing the higher education that has so much to do with economic success? I suppose this drive that evolution produced makes it harder for them to put their efforts into the long years of schooling.

I think your evolutionary logic is flawed. Males have always been the ones most willing to engage in arduous long-term projects to gain recognition, status, and wealth. For females, on the other hand, their max value on the marriage market peaks relatively early and begins to decline. It makes a lot of evolutionary sense for 15-year-old girls to be boy-crazy and for 15-year-old boys to be taking the long view (since the maturity, status, and resources necessary to marry well are typically well off into the future). From a purely evolutionary perspective, the phenomenon of females postponing marriage and child-bearing until after many long years of education and establishing a career makes much less sense.

Males pursing higher education in smaller numbers than females is a new and unprecendented phenomenon -- and, for that reason, hardly something we'd expect to reflect powerful evolutionarily-derived sex differences.

Shorter version -- the explanation lies not the human nature of males, it lies in the recent changes to the nature of schooling.

I would say that it is not enough to tell boys that if they stick with this path for the next 10 years, they'll be well-off and attractive to women -- the 12 and 13 and 14 year old boys have to FEEL, on a daily basis, that school is a status enhancing environment for them. But they don't feel that any more -- quite the opposite.

Smilin' Jack said...

Slocum: very good points.

I think another factor is the leveling of the economic playing field by the women's movement. Now that women have essentially equal opportunity for economic success, such success is less significiant in sexual attraction. It's no longer enough for a man to be merely successful in order to be a "good catch"...he now has to be extremely rich for that to be a factor in his attractiveness to women. So males are now driven to distinguish themselves in ways that women can't or won't...and those pursuits tend to be dangerous.

SteveR said...

qxwvghI generally agree with what Slocum said. As the parent of three daughters, I can see a dramatic cultural shift from my high school era 30 years ago. The type of things that would not favor long term thinking about career and responsible choices. Our little heads wanted the same thing back then but we couldn't expect girls to call us up (or IM, MySpace us) and pursue us.

I was an idiot at 16, and my only choice was to put my nose to the grindstone and hope my career and salary would attract a decent girl some day, not that I wasn't constantly trying. Now there is no downside to being an idiot, believe me I have seen more than a few come though my front door. Three eyebrow rings, a tongue piercing, two on the lips.

Ricardo said...

Some women seem to be solving the basic inequity ("Women will live longer than men") by cougaring themselves a younger man. That's assuming that the only goal here is to have two caskets slamming shut at the same moment.

Joe said...

Steve R said: Now there is no downside to being an idiot.

Reading the comments, I was thinking just the opposite - that there's (almost) no upside to being educated (as opposed to being skilled) today. The opportunities for wealth are few and far between at entry level positions, no matter how much education it takes to get one of those. Worse, because of the demographics (and generally longer productive years due to better health), peak productivity and earnings come later in life. The real rewards in the work world come later, if at all, even if you're highly educated.
The kids with the piercings and tatoos are mostly saying "There must be a better way.", I suspect.

Bruce Hayden said...

Another theory on why women outlive men, on average, is that grandmothers have been historically more useful than grandfathers.

The thing is is that there is little genetic advantage to us being able to stick around after our kids are grown. So, why can we? Otherwise, some 15-20 years after our last kid was born, we would die. But we don't, and women last longer after this than men do.

So, as I pointed out above, one theory is that having grandmothers around to help raise kids is more advantageous than having grandfathers around to held do, well, what?

The value of grandfathers is not zero however. They significantly help the institutional memory of a village. One example given in a recent book I reread was that of the oldest man in the village who knew what was edible in times of a famine. Apparently, he had lived through one some 70 years before, and this memory helped his village survive.

But note that it only takes one or two of these in a village, whereas presumably the grandmothers can provide more benefit.

amba said...

Males are built for physical excitement/challenge and immediacy of competition. The competition in, e.g. business school, is awfully sublimated. Tony Soprano is bored and looking for trouble.

amba said...

Hey, wait a minute, didn't we just hear that males were catching up with females in life expectancy? (And that women aren't thrilled about it?) What's up with that, and does it contradict this?

Bruce Hayden said...

There are two issues here that I think that the authors don't adequately distinguish. First, there is planned obsolescence. Our bodies are programmed to fail at approximately some age, and that age is several years later for women.

Then, you have the increase in male deaths due to risky behavior. As noted, this is common for many, if not most, species. But for us, until very recently in our past, this was countered by a decent chance that a woman would die in childbirth. This is almost unheard of with other mammals, but used to be a real big issue with humans, given the trauma of our birthing process.

Indeed, I have several male ancestors buried with one wife on either side (and no, I don't come from Utah, and they weren't Mormon). One died young in childbirth, and the other was typically older and never had kids. She invariably outlived him by quite a bit.

Bruce Hayden said...


Yes, males are slowly catching up with females as to life expectancy. I have seen two theories. One is that women are now engaging in a lot of the more dangerous things that men have traditionally done, like drinking, smoking, drugs. And, secondly, that modern medicine is better at pushing off the ultimate systems failures that usually kill us for men. This might be because of more money being spent on male aging, or it could be because their systems failures are more tractable. Or, it might be that we are better able to handle single systems failures now, and men were more at risk with single system failures than women.

Slocum said...

So, as I pointed out above, one theory is that having grandmothers around to help raise kids is more advantageous than having grandfathers around to held do, well, what?

To do what? Oh, how about -- occupy positions of wealth, status and authority and, in doing so, be able to smooth the way for their progeny?

We also have to remember that females outliving males is, evolutionarily speaking, quite a recent phenomenon. Up through the 19th century, the risks of childbirth exceeded the various risks that young males face and the average life expectancy of women was lower.

Bruce Hayden said...

I mentioned planned obsolescence above. Most, but not all, species age and die. Interestingly, those that don't, tend to keep growing indefinately.

The aging process results ultimately in our deaths, if something doesn't interfere before that. But it isn't from the same thing for everyone. Rather, we have a lot of different systems that are somehow programmed to fail at approximately the same age.

Or, rather, they are programmed not to fail before that. It takes resources to do this preventive maintenance, and different species allocate their resources differently. A lot of different tradeoffs are made in this area by all species through evolution, and they come to different allocations, based on any number of factors.

For animals, we are relatively long lived. A lot of this is presumably because of the long time it takes to mature, and then for our kids to mature. But at first glance, it would seem that once our last kid can be expected to be out of the house, it wouldn't pay, in terms of resources, to keep us alive longer. Yet, we do live longer, and that is where the grandmother/grandfather theory comes in. There was some environmental force that pushed our natural lifespans a little higher, and it ended up pushing female lifespans up higher than male ones.

Bruce Hayden said...


No, the theory is that the help that grandmothers gave, in, for example, childrearing, was more important, in an evolutionary sense, to that given by the men.

There is no evolutionary benefit to sitting around and consuming resources. Rather, there has to be something more, and this is one theory of what it was.

Ann Althouse said...

"two caskets slamming shut at the same moment."

If that's what you want, marry a bad driver.

As to outliving versus being outlived: You will have to die eventually -- I hate to bring up the famous bad news -- and lots of people are going to outlive you. Aren't you better off having one of those people be your spouse? You're spared the sadness of seeing him/her die or going on alone, and you've got someone to care for you during your decline.

Sean said...

Joe, first year associates at my law firm (i.e., 25 year olds) make $140,000 per year. So how on earth can someone say that education doesn't bring money when you're young?

As to the underlying discussion, I think it's a big mistake to create complex sociobiological explanations for transitory cultural phenomena. Statistics support what several commentators have reported anecdotally: before about 1900, males had longer life expectancies (due primarily to female deaths in childbirth).

Pogo said...

"Men's lives are shorter; women and minorities hardest hit."

SippicanCottage said...

Sean-That salary number you mentioned doesn't tell me much.

The average college grad makes 1.67 times the average high school grad. That's nothing to sneeeze at, of course. This ratio hasn't changed much in the last 20 years.

Your fellow young earner skews the number a bit. He's making a pile, but he/she's rare. And one other item always overlooked: they measure and compare "wages." I'm forty seven and I've earned "wages" about eleven years of the last thirty I've been working.

If you're dropping 100 large on college and foregoing 200 large in wages to attend, you'd better be just like that coworker you mentioned, and not someone with a psychology bachelor's from Podunk State.They're going to be handing food out a hole just like their "uneducated" brethren.

The real problem is not not enough people attending college. That number is historically high; the number of people finishing high school is terrible.

When you consider how undemanding the average high school education is, and then figure how many people aren't even getting that, it seems like a big, big, problem.

I couldn't care less if there were no males in college, or all males. It says as much about what's being offered there as much as what gender is attending.

Ann - The bad driver joke made me laugh.

Abraham said...

Joe, first year associates at my law firm (i.e., 25 year olds) make $140,000 per year.

Is your firm hiring?

altoids1306 said...

Men burn out faster - grossly generalizing, men seek out competition, and tend to seek out the extremes of human behavior. To paraphrase Larry Summers, men have a larger standard deviation. There are more male serial killers, chief surgeons, Nobel Laurates, and NASCAR drivers. These positions require a certain obession, and a disregard for the other needs of life.

If stress and unhealthy living cause early death, it's not surprising that men will die eariler.

Joe said...

Sean wrote:
Joe, first year associates at my law firm (i.e., 25 year olds) make $140,000 per year. So how on earth can someone say that education doesn't bring money when you're young?

Well, true, and some recently drafted 22 year olds are about to make big $ in their first year in the NFL. Indeed, lawyers may be the exception that proves the rule here, especially since we all know Shakespear's famous dictum about whom to go after first! ;>

Still, despite the perenial parental claim that they "had to walk uphill both ways to school everyday in 8 feet of snow.", it seems harder, not easier, for young people (especially men) get ahead these days. It's harder for them (and takes longer) to get to the point where they can attract a mate. It may be true that they can go further, but fewer of them will, regardless of their education level.

mcg said...

Why do (certain ethnic group) men die before their wives?
They want to.
--- Henny Youngman

SteveR said...

Joe: Put simply when I was young in order to get laid you had to have something going for you. You had to have some ambition to finish school with good grades and go on to college. You generally had to look decent and keep your rebellious nature below the surface.

So now, no stigma attached to a lack of ambition or personal hygiene. I don't attribute this to "There must be a better way" chain of thought. Its about as simple as water flowing downhill, its the path of least resistence. Mom and Dad will pick up the slack, and there's a party this Friday night. I can always get a lottery scholarship at State U.

J said...

"So why are so many fewer males pursuing the higher education that has so much to do with economic success?"

You've brought this up before. Is this statement true? I know the ratio of female to male graduates is increasing, but is this because more women are going to college or fewer men are - or some combination of the two? And what sort of degree are they graduating with? As SC pointed out, that first year associate at Sean's firm likely makes just a tad more money than his buddy with the bachelor's in sociology.

"Clearly, the message to guys should be to put this competitive urge into the pursuit of economic success."

Maybe not. As time goes by, things seem to favor men regardless. I know several couples where one spouse is a college grad and the other isn't, and in every case but one, the college grad is the woman.

Richard Fagin said...

Prof. Althouse, your advice to males is spot on, but it sure has a faint whiff of encouraging making oneself attractive to golddiggers.

Yetantotherjohn, you're right too, but I promise, by age 50, you, too will experience, "Revenge of the Nerds." And hot cars will be much easier to afford.

Robert said...

So why are so many fewer males pursuing the higher education that has so much to do with economic success?

Because it no longer has that much to do with economic success.

Let me rephrase that.

Education has a lot to do with economic success. School does not have a whole lot do with education. Males are ahead of the curve and are finding the information and knowledge resources they need outside the academy, which (generally) no longer delivers its product in a cost-effective manner.

chsw10605 said...

1. There is now systematic discrimination against males in education, from K through 12. Male behavior is not valued. Males and their contributions throughout history are downplayed relative to females and their contributions. This denigration is exacerbated in many colleges. Don't say that you haven't noticed this around Mad, WI.
2. That females lioved longer than males is not universal has is probably a recent phenomenon. How many men died from complications of childbirth or from Caesarian section? These used to be leading causes of death for women before anesthesia and sterile surgical procedures became common.

Ann Althouse said...

"Don't say that you haven't noticed this around Mad, WI."

Believe me, I have taken on the teachers around here on precisely that topic. It was not pretty.

Bruce Hayden said...

Don't know where some of my previous comments went, so, some of this may be a repeat.

Yes, men used to live longer, on average, than women, because of so many women dying in childbirth. But that doesn't really answer this question, because absent accidents and childbirth, women still outlive men by, somewhere between 5 and 10 years.

Part of this appears to be that men do partake in other risky behavior more, including stressful work, drinking, smoking, drugs, etc. But as more women engage in these things, the gap has closed a little bit.

But still, the evidence points to female bodies wearing out, on average, later than male bodies by somewhere between 5 and 10 years. At some point in everyone's life, if they live long enough, one system fails after another.

I earlier pointed out that what is interesting is that this doesn't happen when we might, at first glance, think that it should, from an evolutionary point of view - when our last kid reaches reproductive age. Rather, it is typically a decade or so later, and it is harder to justify that from an evolutionary point of view.

Part of this comes from a book I read last year, titled, I think, "Why we die". The problem is that repair takes resources, and different animals spend differing amounts of resources on repair, based primarily on their evolutionary niche. But for most animals, when they are done breeding, they die, because they have allocated just enough resources to get to that point, and no more. We are different here, because we live, without accidents, etc., for a decade or so longer than would seem to be indicated by this. That takes resources, and, thus, must have an evolutionary advantage. That is where I made my suggestion that grandmothers are more important than grandfathers for the species, and, thus, women are programmed to live, on average, a little longer.

XWL said...

Pogo, earlier in the comments has it precisely backwards.

This not long ago from Dr. Helen, " Men Living Longer: Women Hardest Hit"

(that post produced a monstrous, and contentious, comment thread)

Scott A. Edwards said...
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