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Sex differences in human mortality: The role of genetic factors


  • Waldron, Ingrid


This paper reviews evidence concerning genetic factors that influence sex differences in human mortality, with attention to the interactions between genetic and environmental factors. Some widely quoted earlier conclusions, for example, that males have consistently higher fetal mortality than females, are not supported by current evidence. For example, for late fetal mortality, males had higher rates than females in earlier historical data, but not in recent data for several advanced industrial countries. This reflects a changing balance between an inherently greater female vulnerability for one major type of late fetal mortality and inherently greater male vulnerability for several other types of late fetal mortality that have declined in importance as health care has improved. Males appear to be inherently more vulnerable than females to infant mortality, although the causes of this vulnerability are poorly understood. X-linked immunoregulatory genes appear to contribute to greater female resistance to infectious diseases. Despite these apparent inherent advantages for females, in some situations females have had higher infant mortality and higher infectious disease mortality than males, apparently due to environmental disadvantages for females, such as less adequate diet and health care. Inherent sex differences in reproductive physiology and anatomy contribute to higher female mortality for breast cancer and maternal mortality. For these causes of death, as for the other categories discussed, the death rates and thus the contributions to sex differences in total mortality vary considerably depending on environmental conditions. Several hypothesized contributions of sex hormones to sex differences in mortality are at present controversial due to contradictions and limitations in the available data. There may be effects of male sex hormones on sex differences in behavior which contribute to males' higher death rates for accidents and other violent causes. Women's endogenous sex hormones may reduce women's risk of ischemic heart disease. For both violent deaths and ischemic heart disease it appears that any genetic contributions to sex differences in mortality are strongly reinforced by the cultural influences that foster more risky behavior in males, including more use of weapons, employment in hazardous occupations, heavy alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking. It appears that these cultural influences on sex differences in behavior are widespread cross-culturally in part because of the effects of inherent sex differences in reproductive functions on the cultural evolution of sex roles. These examples illustrate the complexity and importance of interactions between genetic and environmental factors in determining sex differences in human mortality.

Suggested Citation

  • Waldron, Ingrid, 1983. "Sex differences in human mortality: The role of genetic factors," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 17(6), pages 321-333, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:17:y:1983:i:6:p:321-333

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    3. Agnihotri, Satish & Palmer-Jones, Richard & Parikh, Ashok, 2002. "Missing women in Indian districts: a quantitative analysis," Structural Change and Economic Dynamics, Elsevier, vol. 13(3), pages 285-314, September.
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    5. Milazzo, Annamaria, 2014. "Son preference, fertility and family structure : evidence from reproductive behavior among Nigerian women," Policy Research Working Paper Series 6869, The World Bank.
    6. Makate, Marshall & Makate, Clifton, 2016. "Is poor sanitation killing more children in rural Zimbabwe? Results of propensity score matching method," MPRA Paper 72831, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised 02 Aug 2016.
    7. Kirill F. Andreev, 2000. "Sex differentials in survival in the Canadian population, 1921-1997," Demographic Research, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany, vol. 3(12), December.
    8. Sharada Srinivasan & Arjun S. Bedi, 2011. "Ensuring Daughter Survival in Tamil Nadu, India," Oxford Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 39(3), pages 253-283, March.
    9. Stacey H. Chen & Yen-Chien Chen & Jin-Tan Liu, 2019. "The Impact of Family Composition on Educational Achievement," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 54(1), pages 122-170.
    10. Roland Pongou, 2013. "Why Is Infant Mortality Higher in Boys Than in Girls? A New Hypothesis Based on Preconception Environment and Evidence From a Large Sample of Twins," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 50(2), pages 421-444, April.
    11. repec:eee:deveco:v:134:y:2018:i:c:p:467-484 is not listed on IDEAS
    12. Quaranta, Luciana, 2014. "Early life effects across the life course: The impact of individually defined exogenous measures of disease exposure on mortality by sex in 19th- and 20th-century Southern Sweden," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 119(C), pages 266-273.
    13. Saha, U.R., 2012. "Econometric models of child mortality dynamics in rural Bangladesh," Other publications TiSEM f734b639-9696-480e-96f0-8, Tilburg University, School of Economics and Management.
    14. Andrew Noymer & Viola Van, 2014. "Divergence without decoupling," Demographic Research, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany, vol. 31(51), pages 1503-1524, December.
    15. Irma T. Elo & Greg L. Drevenstedt, 2005. "Cause-specific contributions to sex differences in adult mortality among whites and African Americans between 1960 and 1995," Demographic Research, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany, vol. 13(19), pages 485-520, November.
    16. Milazzo, Annamaria, 2018. "Why are adult women missing? Son preference and maternal survival in India," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 134(C), pages 467-484.
    17. Saha, U.R. & van Soest, A.H.O. & Bijwaard, G.E., 2012. "Cause-specific Neonatal Deaths : Levels, Trend and Determinants in Rural Bangladesh, 1987-2005," Discussion Paper 2012-016, Tilburg University, Center for Economic Research.
    18. Catalano, Ralph, 2011. "Selection in utero contributes to the male longevity deficit," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 72(6), pages 999-1003, March.
    19. Mussa, Richard, 2017. "Early-Life Rainfall Shocks and Intergenerational Education Mobility in Malawi," MPRA Paper 75978, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    20. Mukherjee, Diganta, 2002. "A new measure of gender bias," ISER Working Paper Series 2002-24, Institute for Social and Economic Research.
    21. Bhalotra, Sonia R. & Chakravarty, Abhishek & Gulesci, Selim, 2016. "The Price of Gold: Dowry and Death in India," IZA Discussion Papers 9679, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    22. J. Guan & JdD Tena, 2018. "Do Social Medical Insurance Schemes Improve Children's Health in China?," Working Paper CRENoS 201807, Centre for North South Economic Research, University of Cagliari and Sassari, Sardinia.
    23. Ting Li & Yang Yang & James Anderson, 2013. "Mortality Increase in Late-Middle and Early-Old Age: Heterogeneity in Death Processes as a New Explanation," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 50(5), pages 1563-1591, October.
    24. Marc Luy & Paola Di Giulio, 2006. "The impact of health behaviors and life quality on gender differences in mortality," MPIDR Working Papers WP-2006-035, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany.

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