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Finding a mate can be exhausting—so much that some animals die after finally meeting that special someone. For Weird Animal Question of the Weekwe took a closer look at the reproductive strategy called semelparityor suicidal reproduction, in which animals concentrate all their reproductive energies into one bout of mating before death. The poster child for this phenomenon is the male antechinusa tiny, short-lived Australian mammal. The critter goes on a mad mating spree sometimes as long as 14 hoursafter which it suffers a fatal immune system breakdown and dies a ragged wreck. about why some animals mate themselves to death.
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His reasoning is obvious: in general, men are bigger and more muscular than women. They can run faster, lift more, and throw things farther.
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Men rule on the playing field, but in medical terms, it's a very different story. When it comes to health, men are the weaker sex. Much has changed in the United States over the past years. Medicine has evolved as much as any field, with dramatic advances in diagnosis and treatment.
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Changing, too, is the American lifestyle, with its new emphasis on healthier diets and regular exercise and its declining dependence on tobacco. As a result of these developments, life expectancy is also changing, rising slowly but steadily year after year see Table 1.
One thing, though, has not changed — the gender gap. People of both sexes are living longer, but decade after decade, women continue to outpace men. In fact, the gap is wider now than it was a century ago. The longevity gap is responsible for the striking demographic characteristics of older Americans. More than half of all women older than 65 are widows, and widows out widowers by at least three to one. At age 65, for every American women, there are only 77 men. At age 85, the disparity is even greater, with women outing men by 2. And the longevity gap persists even into very old age, long after hormones have passed their peak; among centenarians, there are four females for every male.
The gender gap is not unique to America. In fact, every country with reliable health statistics reports that women live longer than men. The longevity gap is present both in industrialized societies and in developing countries. It's a universal observation that suggests a basic difference between the health of men and women. Men die younger than women, and they are more burdened by illness during life. They fall ill at a younger age and have more chronic illnesses than women.
For example, men are nearly 10 times more likely to get inguinal hernias than women, and five times more likely to have aortic aneurysms. American men are about four times more likely to be hit by gout; they are more than three times more likely than women to develop kidney stones, to become alcoholics, or to have bladder cancer.
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And they are about twice as likely to suffer from emphysema or a duodenal ulcer. Although women see doctors more often than men, men cost our society much more for medical care beyond age When it comes to health, males are the weaker sex throughout life. But why? Instead, the gap depends on a complex mix of biological, social, and behavioral factors see Table 2.
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Genes and chromosomes. Males and females are different from the very moment of conception. Each has 23 pairs of chromosomes, which carry the body's 20, to 25, genes. Twenty-two of these pairs are present in both males and females, but the 23rd separates the sexes. This final pair contains the sex chromosomes. In women, both members of the pair are X chromosomes, but in men one is an X and the other a Y. The Y chromosome is only about a third as large as the X and contains far fewer genes than the female sex chromosome.
Some of these genes may be linked to diseases that contribute to the excess male mortality throughout life. In addition, if a woman has a disease-producing gene on one of her X chromosomes, it may be counterbalanced by a normal gene on the other X, but if a man has the same bad gene on his X chromosome, he lacks the potential protection of a matching gene.
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It used to be so simple: testosterone got the blame for premature heart disease in men, while estrogen got the credit for protecting women. The theory was based on the observation that athletes who abuse androgens — male hormones — develop unfavorable cholesterol profiles and suffer an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
But research shows that in physiologic doses, testosterone neither impairs cholesterol levels nor damages the heart. In fact, small studies suggest that testosterone treatment may even help some men with heart disease. Moreover, women who take estrogen well beyond menopause, when their natural levels plummet, experience an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots. Even if hormones don't for the lion's share of the gender gap, they do play a role.
Estrogen appears to have some protective effect against heart disease, perhaps explaining why heart disease typically begins about 10 years later in women than men. On the other hand, testosterone may contribute to the risk-taking and aggressive behavior that causes problems for many young men. And testosterone also fuels diseases of the prostate, both benign and malignant. Even so, the testosterone-prostate connection can't for the longevity gap, since there are more deaths from breast cancer than prostate cancer. Both sex hormones keep bones strong, but here, men actually have the edge.
Reproductive anatomy. Many men view the prostate gland as a vulnerability.
That may be, but reproductive factors actually hold down the health gap between men and women. Add malignant and benign diseases of the uterus and the perils of pregnancy and childbirth, and you'd suppose that women are the more fragile sex. Since they're not, males must have important problems in other areas. Cholesterol may for some of the health gap. Males and females have similar LDL "bad" cholesterol levels, but women have substantially higher levels of HDL "good" cholesterol Higher HDL cholesterol is associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
Like diabetes, obesity is rapidly increasing in the United States. More than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. The prevalence of obesity is slightly higher in American women than men; still, excess weight is more of a problem for males. That's because women tend to carry excess weight on their hips and thighs the "pear shape"while men add it to their waistlines the "apple shape," or "beer belly". Excess body fat is never a good thing, but abdominal obesity is much riskier than lower body obesity, sharply increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Aesthetics aside, women are shaped better. Although obesity is often classified as a metabolic problem, it usually from unwise health behaviors, another major misfortune for males.
In fact, although metabolic, genetic, and hormonal factors may explain part of the health gap, particularly very early in life, social and behavioral factors play a larger role in adults. Work stress and hostility. It's a common explanation for excess male mortality, and there may be something to it. Indeed, the stereotype of the harried, hard-driving, overworked male executive has a basis in fact, and work stress can increase the risk of hypertension, heart attack, and stroke. In fact, karoshi"death from overwork," is a recognized diagnosis in Japan, and it triggers compensatory payments to survivors.
Type A behavior, stress, hostility, and anger have all been implicated as heart disease risk factors, and these traits tend to have a higher prevalence in men than women. Work-related stress and heart-breaking personality factors may contribute to male vulnerability. But as more women enter the workplace and add financial obligations to their traditional roles at home, they may have the dubious honor of closing the gender gap by moving in the wrong direction.
Social networks and supports. It's true: people are good medicine. Strong interpersonal relationships and support networks reduce the risk of many problems, ranging from the common cold and depression to heart attacks and strokes. In contrast, social isolation has been identified as a heart disease risk factor. Women have much larger and more reliable social networks than men.
Mysterious eel mating
There is more than a germ of truth in the quip that two men can't take a walk together unless one is carrying a ball. In general, women are in touch with their feelings and with other women, and they have a remarkable ability to express their thoughts and emotions. Women may not really be from Venus any more than men are from Mars, but strong relationships and good communication seem to help explain why women live longer on Earth. Biological factors for part of the gender gap, social factors for another portion.
But from adolescence onward, male behavior is the main reason that men fall ill sooner and die off faster than women. Risky behavior.
Is it nature or nurture, the Y chromosome and testosterone, or daredevil role models and cultural norms? Whatever the cause, from boyhood on, males take more risks than females, and they often pay the price in terms of trauma, injury, and death. Simple precautions like seat belts and bike helmets can help, but more complex measures involving education about alcohol, drugs, firearms, and safe sex are also essential.
More than ever before, young males need role models who demonstrate that common sense and prudence are manly traits.
Aggression and violence. These are extreme forms of risky behavior, and they all have many of the same root causes. But there is a difference between risk taking and aggressive or violent behavior. A man who takes risks places himself in harm's way, but his unwise choices may not endanger others. Violent behavior, though, directly threatens the health and well-being of others, both male and female.
A man is nearly four times more likely to die from homicide or suicide than a woman, but women are much more likely to be victims of domestic violence. Men need to learn self-control and anger management if they are to close this portion of the gender gap. Understanding that real men have feelings and that strong emotions are best expressed with words, not acts, is also important. It's the riskiest of all health habits, and since secondhand smoke is dangerous to others, it's also a form of undercover hostility.