Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

An absolutely literal post

requiring no sense of humor to understand.

This graph, which I have posted here before, shows trends in life expectancy at birth in the U.S. for white and Black men and women. (Other groups are not shown because of lack of adequate historical data, and the complicating effects of immigration.) As you can see, women live longer than men, and white people live longer than black people. By coincidence, the effects cancel out so that white men and black women have about the same life expectancy. (Life expectancy is an artificial construct based on the idea that everybody born today will have the same probability of dying when they are 1, 5, 10, 15 . . . 80 years old as people in their demographic category do today.) Although life expectancy overall has been increasing, the disparities have remained.

The greater longevity of women holds throughout the wealthy countries. It didn't used to be true, in large part because of the risk of dying during childbirth. Fortunately, in the 1850s, Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that by having birth attendants carefully wash their hands and instruments, the risk of women contracting fatal post-partum fevers could be nearly eliminated. He was scorned at first, but eventually his ideas were accepted. Subsequently, medical technology greatly reduced the risk from other complications of childbirth as well, notably pre-eclampsia and hemmorhage.

Female longevity is thought to be a basic characteristic of our species. The shorter male life expectancy is partly caused by higher rates of smoking, and a far greater risk of death by violence. However, even accounting for known, controllable factors, the relative fragility of the male remains.

In much of the world, however, until recently women did not expect to live as long as men. The continuing danger of maternal death among poor women in poor countries explains much of the phenomenon. In much of Asia selective female infanticide was of major importance. Also, in times of scarcity, again particularly in Asia, boy children would tend to be favored. Given the presumed biological advantage of women, that women now at least equal male life expectancy in all the world does not mean they do not continue to suffer from discrimination, so it is actually a somewhat meaningless milestone, but there it is.

The UN, among its other millenium development recommendation, proposes some readily affordable ways to make childbirth safer, and to raise the status of women generally, which is essential to eradicating poverty.

Still, I presume most people will agree that it is not good news that men are doomed to be outlived by their female friends. Perhaps it isn't really true after all, and there is something we are missing about male aging. The tendency of men to develop heart disease earlier than women is a major factor, and that may well be preventable. The important thing, in any case, is not to try to live forever, but to have a good life and enough life span to achieve what matters to us.

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