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Updated 9:30 AM April 9, 2007




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Study: Stress of war harms civilian men more than women

A man's health and behavior is more adversely impacted by war and the associated disruption than a woman's, as evidenced by the dramatic jump in non-combat mortality for men during the Croatian War of Independence, a new study shows.

It is commonly known that men bear a higher mortality burden from the results of combat, given the composition of most militaries. In the Croatian war, for example, nine times as many men died because of war-related causes.

Now a U-M study shows Croatian men also experienced a dramatically greater increase than women in non-combat mortality, both from behavioral and internal causes. The difference between male and female mortality rates for behavioral causes of death—accidents, homicides, and suicides—peaked one year after the most intense period of warfare.

The study has implications for understanding male and female psychology, says study author Daniel Kruger, assistant research scientist in the School of Public Health. Kruger co-authored the study with Dr. Randolph Nesse, a researcher in the Institute for Social Research, professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the Evolution and Human Adaptation Program.

The study infers that the rise in deaths during and after the war, which lasted from 1991-95, occurred because men have evolved to have riskier behavior and riskier physiological responses than women when their surroundings are in turmoil, Kruger says.

"Conditions of uncertainty where the whole environment is disrupted tend to make men shift toward riskier behavior," Kruger says. Men also are more physiologically susceptible to stressors in the environment around them, Kruger says. That's because the male body invests more in competition than it does in preserving and maintaining itself, as males historically have faced greater competition for mates. On the other hand, he says, females invest more in self-preservation for the sake of raising and caring for offspring.

Data collection usually is not a high priority for the health infrastructure during warfare. In this case, however, reliable high quality mortality data is available from the World Health Organization mortality database.

Kruger and Nesse analyzed data from 1998 to 2002 in 10-year age groups. In the period following the war, the ratio of male deaths to female deaths was as high as 4.5 to 1 in the 35-44 year old age group, the study shows. Usually, the peak sex difference in mortality happens in the younger age group of 25-34, Kruger says. But in the decade after the war, men who underwent those experiences may still have been living with the shadow of them, he says.

Under normal circumstances, for every Croatian woman between the ages of 15-34 that dies, three men of the same age group will die. Earlier studies by Kruger and Nesse have shown that this ratio holds true across modern nations. "In many developed nations being male is the largest demographic risk factor for early mortality," Kruger says.

The study appears in the latest issue of Psychological Topics.

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