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No. 1428:
Men and Self-Destruction

Today, men self-destruct. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Last week's New York Times has a big section on Men's Health. It deals with food, prostate, heart, potency, longevity, attitudes. One woman offers context in her article, Why Men Don't Last: Self-Destruction as a Way of Life. She describes a situation in which men seem better equipped for survival than women. Men suffer less weight-gain from eating. They suffer less depression. They exercise more and have fewer chronic diseases. Yet women still live seven years longer. Does that make sense?

The situation is complicated. Take the fact that women suffer depression twice as often as men do. Women are more likely to internalize and brood, while men either confront trouble or distract themselves in activity. Three times as many women talk about, or attempt, suicide. But men, more driven to succeed, are more apt to carry suicide to completion. Four times as many men die by their own hand.

About 3½ times as many men are involved in fatal automobile accidents. Far more men are murder victims. Go to the gambling casinos and watch men and women. Men are more likely to be swept up in the excitement of high-stakes games. Women are more likely to use slot machines or video poker as a sedative, away from social scrutiny, says the article.

All that smacks of male testosterone running amok, but another article calls for a rehabilitation of that much-maligned hormone. Low testosterone has now been identified with anger and defeat -- factors that generate their own mischief.

These Times articles are not clear and conclusive. In fact, they leave my head spinning. More men than women have problems with drinking or drugs. That hardly represents testosterone-driven risk-taking. Alcohol and drugs smack of retreat from engagement. For that matter, success at suicide is hardly a form of risk-taking.

Among the articles, a full-page Pfizer pharmaceutical ad gives an odd perspective on all this. Prostate cancer survivor Bob Dole gazes at us, looking oddly uncomfortable. The ad encourages men to talk to their doctors about erectile dysfunction. "It may take a little courage to ask your doctor about [it]," Dole tells us. (Notice how male courage has to be called into the equation.)

That ad mirrors another article, this one about men's and women's use of medical help. Women go to the doctor more often, and they're far more likely to go in for a checkup while they're well. Men are supposed to be the ones who don't get sick. So there's nothing casual in the design of that Pfizer ad. How else do you get men to deal with weakness than to call their courage into question!

Other articles deal with cosmetic surgery and weight training, Viagra and eating habits. It becomes clear that the old gender stereotypes cannot be ignored, and that they're more complex than we thought. The bad news is, those differences still cut men's lives short. And that is a problem we need to work on.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The New York Times, A Special Section: Men's Health. Wednesday, February 17, 1999, pp. D1-16.


Human Figure in a Circle, Illustrating Proportions. Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1485