I recently found myself in Lang'ata public cemetery. I found out that more than 70 per cent of those buried there were young people, aged below 35. Of this, more than 55 per cent were young men. Why are our youthful men dying so young? Popular culture may paint men as the stronger sex, but from the moment a boy is born, his life is more likely to be cut short than his sister's. Across national and cultural boundaries, men die an average of seven years earlier than women.
In the book Why Men Die First, Marianne Legato, explains: They're genetically and biologically fragile to start with, and societal norms that encourage and even demand risky behavior by men put them at risk. On average, women live longer than men.
In fact, 57 per cent of all those aged 65 and older are female. By age 85, 67 per cent are women. The average lifespan is about seven years longer for women than men in Kenya. There are many reasons why the ratio of men to women, which is roughly equal in young adulthood, starts to favor women over time.
Baby boys are one-and-a-half to two times more likely to die at birth than girls. A weaker immune system, a tendency for immature lung development, inadequate blood flow to male fetuses, and high vulnerability to maternal stresses seem to be the culprits. Brain hemorrhages, congenital malformations, pneumonia and urinary tract infections are all more common among male newborns.
In Kenya, men are more likely to die by suicide. One reason behind the high suicide rate among men is the high stigma about psychiatric disorders as well as mental healthcare use. So when men experience stress, they are at higher risk of mental health problems such as depression than women, possibly because they do not talk about their emotions and they do not seek care.
Substance abuse is also more common among men than women. While that gap is narrowing, according to a 2011 study, men were 2.2 times more likely to abuse drugs than women, and 1.9 times more likely to have drug dependence. Men far outnumber women in some of the riskiest occupations, including military combat, firefighting, and working at construction sites. Testosterone puts men at risk biologically, but it also puts them at risk behaviorally. It increases aggressiveness, and, in a cascading effect, results in higher death rate from accidents and homicide.
Women systematically overestimate risk of any type, while men consistently underestimate it. This pattern has been observed regardless of the context. These include examples ranging from crossing a road, smoking or a terrorist attack. Among pedestrians, males violate more rules than females.
Among drivers, men more commonly break the rules. Perhaps we will be more successful in the future in avoiding preventable, premature death among men and, because many of these efforts will have a bigger impact on men, the gender gap among the elderly may eventually narrow.