Social Change and Mortality Decline: Women's Advantage Achieved or Regained?

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Citation: Vallin, Jacques (1993) Social Change and Mortality Decline: Women's Advantage Achieved or Regained?.

Tagged: uw-madison (RSS), wisconsin (RSS), sociology (RSS), demography (RSS), prelim (RSS), qual (RSS), WisconsinDemographyPrelimAugust2009 (RSS), life expectancy (RSS)


Part of the excess mortality of men has always been considered to be biological. However, in many past populations and present high-mortality populations, it is often found that life expectancies at birth for the 2 sexes are nearly equal or that women suffer from an excess mortality, which reduces their life expectancy below that of men.

Many demographers have argued that, at the outset of life, women are biologically superior to men. Estimates of women's inborn biological life expectancy advantage range from about 2 to 6 years. The 2 year estimate, by Pressat, is related to the difference in mortality between boys and girls during the 1st year of life in the West, a seemingly purely biological difference, which would, in the long run, produce a 2-year difference in life expectancy.

In spite of women's innate advantage, in the past they have generally suffered higher mortality than men. This continued to be true until recently in the less developed countries due to maternal mortality and mortality at young ages (girls were give less care, and standards of hygiene and nutrition for them were lower as the result of an anti-feminist ideology, which regarded them as being intrinsically less valuable).

In the 20th century, women's status has increased greatly. Moreover, considering recent changes in mortality women have more than merely regained their original advantage.

Using data on major cause of mortality for women and men, Vallin finds from 1925 to 1929, male's higher mortality at young ages was due to infectious diseases. The reduction in the excess mortality of young women (about age 15 to 50) was caused by a trade-off between their excess mortality from infectious diseases, neoplasms, and degenerative diseases, and men's excess mortality from accidents and suicide. At ages above 55, all cause groups contributed to the excess mortality of men, but the main contribution to the difference between life expectancies came from deaths from infectious and degenerative diseases. By 1974-1978, there is no longer an excess of mortality of women in any age-cause group. In the case of infant mortality, the contribution made by deaths from hereditary and congenital diseases has become predominant and confirms that, during the first year of life, the excess mortality of boys is due almost entirely to genetic causes. In the 20s, higher male mortality is due to violence. In later life, death from malnutrition, neoplasms, and degenerative diseases, are the major contributors to higher male mortality which may be due to male-female differences in smoking, drinking, industrial pollution, and generally less healthy conditions of life for males (although there has been some convergence in these behaviors, which of course doesn't explain the increase in the male-female mortality differences).

Vallin argues that women's inferior status in the past was not entirely disadvantageous because they were afforded some degree of protection. Moreover, some aspects of this protection have remained which Vallin considers to be related to women's attitudes towards life and society. Even regarding risk behaviors, women's particular behavior is less risky (i.e., they smoke fewer cigarettes a day). Moreover, their occupational distribution places them in fewer low-grade, physically demanding occupations. Finally, in general, women's attitudes to their bodies, their health, and life in general are very different from those of men. Women engage in fewer risky activities, take greater care of their health and their bodies, and are increasingly more educated than men.