The findings are meant to be lighthearted — but the longevity gap between men and women is very real. (Universal Pictures)
It’s an often-cited statistic: Women live longer.
It’s true for every society, across all age groups, and throughout recorded history. For decades, scientists have sought to explain the gap in longevity between men and women. While many have questioned whether men are more prone to death due to hormonal, socioeconomic, or cultural factors, researchers investigated a simpler explanation in a new study: Men might just be idiots.
The study, published in the notoriously lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal, examined what it calls the “male idiot theory.” It postulates that “many of the differences in risk seeking behavior, emergency department admissions, and mortality may be explained by the observation that men are idiots and idiots do stupid things.”
(To be clear, the theory introduced in the BMJ study is meant in the spirit of holiday fun. But the study is based on real data and the study goes through the same peer-review process as other, “serious” studies.)
According to the researchers, there’s a big difference between the classic risks associated with men that lead them to potential harm — like playing sports or trying to impress a girl — and so-called “idiotic” risks, which they define as “senseless risks, where the apparent payoff is negligible or non-existent, and the outcome is often extremely negative and often final.”
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To test this “male idiot theory,” study researcher Ben Lendrem and his colleagues examined the growing database of Darwin Award winners. The Darwin Awards “commemorate individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives: by eliminating themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner,” according to the awards website. (Examples: A man who sliced his own head off with a chainsaw to prove his manliness to his buddies and a woman who went careening off an 80-foot cliff in chase of a feather blowing in the wind.)
The researchers examined the past two decades of award-winning stories, counting only those that were committed by a single person and were thoroughly verified. The results were clear: Of the 318 Darwin Award winners who met the criteria, a whopping 282 of them — 88.7 percent — were men. This difference, the researchers noted, was highly statistically significant.
The study was not without its drawbacks, the researchers acknowledged: While the Darwin Awards are excellent examples of idiotic behavior, there may be biases in how the awards are given out. People may be more likely to nominate men, as men’s stories may just be more humorous or newsworthy. Or, the selection committee may be biased in how it chooses its winners each year.
So are men simply idiots? No, of course not. But while the researchers’ analysis is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the difference in death rates between men and women is very real. The age-adjusted death rate from all causes in the United States in 2010 was 40 percent greater for males than for females.
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And it’s not just that women outlive men overall — for every age group, the rate of death is higher for men than for women. That means that baby boys are more likely to die than baby girls, teenage boys more likely to die than teenage girls, and old men more likely to die than old women. The real question is: Why?
Part of the reason, as the researchers’ analyses suggest, has to do with behavior. Men drink more, smoke more, and consume more illegal substances than women, especially when young. It’s not clear if this is a product of cultural influences or a side effect of biological factors like testosterone levels — but whatever the impetus, such activities are no doubt the reason why men are far more likely to die of respiratory cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, emphysema, and coronary heart disease.
Men also are more likely to die violently — three-and-a-half times as likely when that violence is committed by another (homicide), and more than four times as likely if they are the perpetrator (suicide) in the United States. Though the numbers vary, violent deaths are more common in men worldwide, even when war is removed from the equation.
Scientists believe part of the difference is physiological: Again, high testosterone increases aggressive tendencies in general. But the gender gap in career success may also play a role, particularly for suicides. Higher-earning jobs are not only high-stress, they’re isolative — and that can create an environment that encourages emotional disorders. Though women have fought hard to break through glass ceilings, there are still more men sitting in the positions that are more likely to drive a person to self-harm.
In the end, a combination of factors has given women the edge when it comes to survival. As medical technologies advance and societies change the way they stereotype men and women, we may see the longevity gap slowly disappear. Or, if the “male idiot theory” is correct, we may see it widen; once we’ve cured cancer and heart disease and even delayed the onset of aging, the leading cause of death may very well become stupidity.
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