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Updated 11:00 AM July 16, 2007




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Freedom isn’t always healthy for men

Economic freedom could be bad for your health if you’re a man caught in the fervor of competing for status, wealth and power.

A new study from the University examines mortality patterns in 14 Eastern European countries before, during and after the transition from centrally planned to market economies in the 1990s.

Researchers found that the difference in mortality rates between men and women increased greatly during the transition to a market economy and remained relatively higher afterward. The study was conducted by Daniel Kruger, a research scientist in the School of Public Health, and Randolph Nesse, a professor at the Institute for Social Research. The researchers analyzed mortality data collected by the World Health Organization, Kruger says.

The findings give us insight into the kind of social and economic policies that may be beneficial for our health, Kruger says. Dramatic increases in income inequality could lead to similar effects in western countries.

At first glance the results seem counterintuitive because of the optimism usually associated with the fall of the Iron Curtain, but they fall in line with what researchers already know about mortality discrepancies between men and women. Historically, competition for resources among males is connected with reproductive success, but this competition also fuels risky behavior and stress.

Greater sex differences in mortality rates occurred for both external causes, reflecting a shift toward riskier behavior, and internal causes, indicating a greater physiological impact of stress. For example, the mortality rate from intentional causes such as homicide and violence doubled, the data showed.

“Basically the economic and political transition was more health adverse for men than for women,” Kruger says. “The reason for this is because prior to the transition there wasn’t so much incentive for competition because there was not much of a difference in social status or resources, most people were fairly equally well off.”

Certain groups of men were impacted more than others, he says. People of retirement age were hardly affected, because they did not have to compete economically. Those under age 25 also were not adversely affected, probably because they saw great opportunities in the transition. This, too, falls in line with existing research. In western countries, sex differences in mortality rates are much higher in lower socioeconomic populations whose members face greater competition for resources and status.

There were vast differences among countries depending how well situated they were when the transition to a market economy occurred, Kruger says. For instance, the Czech Republic already had a good industrial base; the capital of Prague was spared devastation by WWII and became a tourist attraction. It had one of the lowest mortality discrepancies. The former Soviet Socialist Republics have not done as well economically, and this is reflected in the large increases in mortality differences.

The study is in the current issue of the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

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