The weaker sex? Science that shows women are stronger than men

The Guardian

A woman carrying a man across her shoulders
 Making a stand: women are better survivors than men. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

Four years ago, completely spent, blood transfused into me in a frantic effort to allow me to walk, I lay on a hospital bed having given birth the day before. To the joy of my family, I had brought them a son. Blue balloons foretold a man in the making. Not just the apple of my eye, but the one who would one day open jam jars for me. The hero who would do the DIY and put out the rubbish. He who was born to be strong because he is male.

But then, physical strength can be defined in different ways. What I was yet to learn was that, beneath our skin, women bubble with a source of power that even science has yet to fully understand. We are better survivors than men. What’s more, we are born this way.

“Pretty much at every age, women seem to survive better than men,” says Steven Austad, an international expert on ageing, and chair of the biology department at the University of Alabama. For almost two decades, he has been studying one of the best-known yet under-researched facts of human biology: that women live longer than men. His longevity database shows that all over the world and as far back as records have been kept, women outlive men by around five or six years. He describes them as being more “robust”.

Robustness, toughness or pure power – whatever it’s called – this survival ability cracks apart the stereotype. The physically strong woman is almost a myth. We gaze upon great female athletes as though they’re other-worldly creatures. Greek legend could only imagine the Amazons, female warriors as powerful as men. They break the laws of nature. No, we everyday women, we have just half the upper body strength of men. We are six inches shorter, depending on where we live. We wield power, but it’s emotional and intellectual, we tell ourselves. It’s not in our bodies.

Not so, says Austad. He is among a small cadre of researchers who believe that women may hold the key to prolonging life. In extremely old age, the gap between the sexes becomes a glaring one.

According to a tally maintained by the global Gerontology Research Group, today, 43 people around the world are known to be living past the age of 110. Of these supercentenarians, 42 are women. Interviews with the world’s current oldest person, 117-year-old Violet Brown, who lives in Jamaica, reveal she enjoys eating fish and mutton. She once worked as a plantation worker. Her lifestyle betrays few clues as to how she has lived so long. But one factor we know has helped is being a woman.

An 'elderly' man crouching on a zimmer frame with an 'elderly' woman leaning on it to leap up and over him
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 Grey power: 42 of the 43 people over the age of 110 are women. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

Yet there is bizarrely little research to explain the biology behind this. What scientists do know is that this edge doesn’t emerge in later life. It is there from the moment a girl is born. “When we were there on the neonatal unit and a boy came out, you were taught that, statistically, the boy is more likely to die,” says Joy Lawn, director of the Centre for Maternal, Adolescent, Reproductive, and Child Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She explains that, globally, a million babies die on the day of their birth every year.

But if they receive exactly the same level of care, males are statistically at a 10% greater risk than females. What makes baby girls so robust remains mostly a mystery. Research published in 2014 by scientists at the University of Adelaide suggests that a mother’s placenta may behave differently depending on the sex of the baby, doing more to maintain the pregnancy and increase immunity against infections. For reasons unknown, girls may be getting an extra dose of survivability in the womb.

Wherever it comes from, women seem to be shielded against sickness later on. “Cardiovascular disease occurs much earlier in men than women. The age of onset of hypertension [high blood pressure] also occurs much earlier in men than women. And there’s a sex difference in the rate of progression of disease,” says Kathryn Sandberg, director of the Centre for the Study of Sex Differences in Health, Ageing and Disease at Georgetown University.

Austad found that in the United States in 2010, women died at lower rates than men from 12 of the 15 most common causes of death, including cancer and heart disease, when adjusted for age. Of the three exceptions, their likelihood of dying from Parkinson’s or stroke was about the same. And they were more likely than men to die of Alzheimer’s disease. “Once I started investigating, I found that women had resistance to almost all the major causes of death,” he says.

The world’s oldest person Violet Brown sitting with a care giver either side of her at her home in Jamaica
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 Age of reason: Violet Brown, centre, the world’s oldest person, was born in Jamaica in 1900. Photograph: Raymond Simpson/AP

Even when it comes to everyday coughs and colds, women have the advantage. “If you look across all the different types of infections, women have a more robust immune response,” adds Sandberg. “If there’s a really bad infection, they survive better. If it’s about the duration of the infection, women will respond faster.” One explanation for this is hormones. Higher levels of oestrogen and progesterone could be protecting women in some way, not only by making our immune systems stronger, but also more flexible. This may help maintain a healthy pregnancy. A woman’s immune system is more active in the second half of her menstrual cycle, when she’s able to conceive.

On the downside, a powerful immune response also makes women more susceptible to autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. The body is so good at fighting off infection that it attacks its own cells. And this may explain why women tend to report more pain and sickness than men. “This is one of the penalties of being a better survivor. You survive, but maybe not quite as intact as you were before,” says Austad. Another factor is simply that men are dying more. “Part of the reason there are more women than men around in ill health is to do with the fact that women have survived events that would kill men, so the equivalent men are no longer with us,” he adds.

When it comes to biological sex difference, though, everything isn’t always as it seems. At least some of the gaps in health and survival may be social, reflecting gender behaviour. Women may be more likely to seek medical help, for instance. Men may have less healthy diets or do more dangerous work. Nonetheless, Austad and Sandberg are convinced that nature accounts for a good deal of what we see.

If they are right, this raises a deeper scientific conundrum. Our bodies adapted over millennia to our environments. So what could it have been in our evolutionary past that gave the female body a little more of this magical robustness? How and why would one sex have developed a survival edge over the other?

Studies of hunter-gatherer societies, who live the way we all may have done before fixed settlements and agriculture, provide a few clues. Many anthropologists studying tribal communities in Africa, South America, Asia and Australia believe early humans lived fairly equal lives, sharing responsibility for food, shelter and raising children. The Flintstones model, with wife at home and husband bringing back the bacon, just doesn’t stand up. Instead, the evidence shows that women would have done at least the same physical work as men, but with the added burden of bearing children.

“There’s a general consensus now that hunting-gathering societies, while not perfectly egalitarian, were less unequal, particularly with regard to gender equality,” says Melvin Konner, professor of anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta, who has spent years doing fieldwork with hunter-gatherers in Africa. “Because of the scale of the group dynamics, it would be impossible for men to exclude women.”

The more research that is done, the more this is reinforced. Even hunting – that prototypical male activity – is being recast as a female one, too. Anthropologist Rebecca Bliege Bird, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, offers me the example of the Martu, an aboriginal tribe in Western Australia. “When Martu women hunt, one of their favourite prey are feral cats. It’s not a very productive activity, but it’s a chance for women to show off their skill acquisition.”

Paula Radcliffe running and smiling, holding up her T-shirt to show her belly at five months pregnant
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 Keep on running: Paula Radcliffe continued to train through her two pregnancies. Photograph: Getty Images

Indeed, women are known to be particularly good at endurance running, notes Marlene Zuk, who runs a lab focusing on evolutionary biology at the University of Minnesota. In her 2013 book Paleofantasy, she writes that women’s running abilities decline extremely slowly into old age. They’ve been known to go long distances even while pregnant. In 2011, for example, Amber Miller ran the Chicago marathon before giving birth seven hours later. World record holder Paula Radcliffe has trained through two pregnancies.

Why, then, are we not all Amazons? Why do we imagine femininity to mean small, waif-like bodies? The lives of most ordinary women, outside the pages of magazines, destroy this notion. Visiting India’s cities, I see female construction workers lining the streets, hauling piles of bricks on their heads to building sites. In Kenya, I meet female security guards everywhere, patrolling offices and hotels. Out in rural areas, there are women doing hard physical labour, often hauling their children in slings. Our ancestors would have done the same.

In evolutionary terms, these were the circumstances under which our bodies were forged. For an enormous chunk of early human history, as we migrated through Africa to the rest of the world, women would also have travelled hundreds or thousands of miles, sometimes under extreme environmental conditions. “Just reproducing and surviving in these conditions, talk about natural selection!” I’m told by Adrienne Zihlman, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, when I visit her at her home in San Francisco.

Zihlman has dedicated her career to understanding human anatomy, and in particular the evolution of women’s bodies. “Women have to reproduce. That means being pregnant for nine months. They’ve got to lactate. They’ve got to carry these kids. There’s something about being a human female that was shaped by evolution. There’s a lot of mortality along the way that really can account for it.”

When I gave birth to my son, I did the most physically demanding thing a human can do. Yet I am considered the weaker sex. Zihlman reminds me that my body was made strong by the struggles of countless generations of women who went before. “There is something about the female form, the female psyche, just the whole package, that was honed over thousands and thousands, even millions, of years to survive,” she smiles. I happen to remember, in that moment, that at home I do all the DIY.

Myths and misses: five more things you didn’t know about women and men

Separate symptoms Women and men present different symptoms for the same medical conditions. Women are more likely to have insomnia and fatigue in the weeks before they have a heart attack, rather than the chest pain commonly experienced by men.

Changes of life Women in India, Japan and China experience far fewer menopause symptoms than western women who commonly report hot flushes, night sweats, depression and insomnia. Scientists at King’s College London argue this could be due to women lumping together their experience of growing older with the menopause.

Casual sex Women are choosier but not more chaste than men. A study by two German researchers, Andreas Baranowski and Heiko Hecht, found that women want casual sex just as much as men and were as likely as males to have sex with a stranger, as long as it was in a safe environment.

Boys’ toys A 2010 study by Professor Melissa Hines at the University of Cambridge found that girls on average were genetically predisposed to prefer dolls while boys liked to play with mechanical toys such as trains.

Risky business Testosterone is associated with higher levels of optimism, rather than aggression. Saliva samples taken from traders on the London Stock Exchange confirmed they had higher than average testosterone levels. Scientists from Britain, the USA and Spain concluded this increase made the traders more optimistic so more likely to take big financial risks.

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini is published by Fourth Estate at £12.99. To order a copy for £11.04, go to bookshop.theguardian.com

Main photograph: Acrobats JD and Nikki; Stylist Hope Lawrie; special effects make-up Julia Bowden

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Why 70 percent of kids quit sports by age 13

The Washington Post

Posted on January 7, 2017

June 1, 2016

According to a poll from the National Alliance for Youth Sports, around 70 percent of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of 13 because “it’s just not fun anymore.” I have three kids, all of whom play sports, and my oldest is about to turn 13. I may not have understood why this was happening a few years ago, but sadly, knowing what I know now, the mass exodus of 13-year-olds from organized sports makes perfect sense to me.

“It’s not fun anymore” isn’t the problem; it’s a consequence of a number of cultural, economic and systemic issues that result in our kids turning away from organized sports at a time when they could benefit from them the most. Playing sports offers everything from physical activity, experiencing success and bouncing back from failure to taking calculated risks and dealing with the consequences to working as a team and getting away from the ubiquitous presence of screens. Our middle-schoolers need sports now more than ever.

Here are the reasons I think it’s become less fun for kids to play sports, and why they are taking an early retirement.

It’s not fun anymore because it’s not designed to be. As children get closer to high school, the system of youth sports is geared toward meeting the needs of more competitive players, and the expectations placed on them increase. Often the mentality is that most of the kids who quit at 13 are the ones who wouldn’t make a varsity team in high school anyway. Those who stick around find that being on a team means a greater commitment of time and effort. It also means being surrounded by people who care very much about the outcome. This, consequently, brings with it the potential for experiencing disappointment or being the cause of it. There is nothing wrong with any of that, and it can teach incredibly important lessons about hard work, resiliency and character — but it’s not for everyone.

Our culture no longer supports older kids playing for the fun of it. The pressure to raise “successful” kids means that we expect them to be the best. If they’re not, they’re encouraged to cut their losses and focus on areas where they can excel. We see it in middle school orchestra, where a kid who doesn’t make first chair wonders if it’s worth continuing to play. If a seventh-grader doesn’t make a select team for soccer, she starts to wonder if maybe it’s time to quit altogether, thinking that if she’s not hitting that highest level, it might not be worth doing?

For the small minority of kids who are playing a sport at an elite level and loving it, the idea of quitting in middle school is probably unthinkable. But for everyone else, there are fewer opportunities to play, a more competitive and less developmental environment in which to participate, and lots of other things competing for their time after school.

There is a clear push for kids to specialize and achieve at the highest possible level. Increasingly kids are pressured to “find their passion” and excel in that area (be it music, arts, sports, etc.). There are certainly kids for whom this is true, but it is not the norm (despite the expectations of college admissions officers). For many, there’s a strong argument against this trend, because the message is essentially to pick one thing and specialize in it (to the exclusion of pursuing other interests). For young athletes, early specialization can be harmful in terms of long-term injuries, and it does little to increase one’s overall the chances of later collegiate or professional success.

Perhaps more importantly, the underlying message that “I have to be the best or I’ve failed” is deeply harmful to kids. This is absolutely mirrored and reinforced in school, where the environment is increasingly test and outcome-driven. Sports could be pivotal in teaching kids how to fail and recover, something that educators and parents see as being desperately needed. In privileged Washington, D.C., suburbs such as Fairfax and Montgomery counties (and in others like them, across the country), teenagers find themselves stressed to the point of developing anxiety and depression. We see unhealthy coping behaviors and increased rates of self-harm and suicide. This is not a sports problem, it’s a culture problem.

There is a cost to be competitive and not everyone is willing or able to pay it. For kids, playing at a more competitive level can mean having to prioritize their commitments and interests and work tirelessly. It also means they have to be able to deal with the pressure of participating at a higher level. These can be positive things — provided the environment they’re playing in is a healthy one. But there are other factors that contribute to a young athlete’s ability not just to compete, but to be seen as competitive, and I question how healthy these things are for families.

Training year-round, expensive equipment, individual coaching, camps, tournaments and participation on travel and select teams in many places are no longer really considered “optional” for success in youth sports, at least not heading into high school. The investment of time and money that these things require is substantial. That contributes to an environment where kids of lower-income or single-parent families are simply shut out of the game.

And, of course, it’s just the age. At 13, kids generally find themselves with more (and more challenging) school work. Most are also encouraged to start choosing what interests them the most and what they’re best at. There’s no longer time for them to do as much they did in elementary school.

Some of the major social and emotional changes that 13-year-olds experience also predispose them to making decisions such as quitting sports, especially as that environment becomes more competitive. The CDC describes it on its developmental milestones page as a “focus on themselves… going back and forth between high expectations and lack of confidence.” Kids become more focused on — and influenced by — their friends, many of whom are also walking away from organized youth sports.

Any discussion about being 13 also needs to include social media, smartphones and the Internet. According to the Pew Center’s Internet Research Study, most U.S. kids receive their first cellphone or wireless device by the age of 12. Between the ages of 13 and 17, 92 percent of teens report being online every day, and 24 percent are online “almost constantly.” As kids become teenagers, their priorities change. How they socialize, study and spend their time changes with them.

These things collectively represent a perfect storm. There are no easy answers here. The system of youth sports is set up to cater to more elite players as they approach high school, leaving average kids with fewer opportunities. Our culture encourages specialization and achievement, which actively discourages kids from trying new things or just playing for fun. And all of this converges at a time when they’re going through major physical, emotional and social changes as well as facing pressure to pare down their interests and focus on school.

So why do 70 percent of kids quit organized sports at 13 and what can we do about it? I would argue that most kids leave because we haven’t given them a way to stay. And perhaps more importantly, until we dismantle the parenting culture that emphasizes achievement and success over healthy, happy kids, we don’t stand a chance of solving this problem.

Julianna W. Miner has three kids and lives in suburban Washington, D.C. She teaches Public Health at a college she couldn’t have gotten into because she made bad choices in high school. She writes the award-winning humor blog  Rants from Mommyland and spends too much time on the Facebook.

Researchers Draw Link Between Physical Activity, Academic Success

EdWeek

Beyond the fitness-related benefits, physical activity can also contribute to students’ academic success, suggests a consensus statement published online Monday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

A group of 24 international experts gathered in Denmark back in April “to reach evidence-based consensus about physical activity and youth.” They wound up with a 21-point list divided into four themes: fitness and health; cognitive functioning; engagement, motivation, psychological well-being; and inclusion and physical activity implementation strategies.

When it comes to academics, the researchers concluded that “physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness are beneficial to brain structure, brain function, and cognition in children and youth.” Additionally, they suggested “a single session of moderate physical activity has an acute benefit to brain function, cognition, and scholastic performance in children and youth.”

There’s been plenty of research in recent years to back up these assertions. In September 2014, a study published in the journal PLOS ONE found physical activity during recess in 1st grade to be directly correlated to reading fluency in 1st and 2nd grades. A study published in the same journalthe previous September suggested higher levels of aerobic fitness could bolster a child’s ability to learn and remember information. In March 2014, a study found Kansas elementary and middle school students who met certain physical-fitness benchmarks to be considerably more likely to exceed reading and math performance standards.

Accordingly, the Copenhagen Consensus experts concluded that time taken away from academic lessons in favor of physical activity won’t “come at the cost of scholastic performance.” Research suggests there’s a tangible academic benefit to giving students a physical-activity break between hours of lessons, even if it comes at the expense of a few extra minutes of classroom time.

The Copenhagen researchers also found physical activity to have “the potential to positively influence psychological and social outcomes” for students, “such as self-esteem and relationships with peers, parents, and coaches.” They suggested “close relationships and peer group acceptance in physical activity are positively related to perceived competence, intrinsic motivation and participation behavior” in children. The experts particularly endorsed physical-activity programs with “an intentional curriculum and deliberate training,” as they are “effective at promoting life skills and core values” such as respect, social responsibility and self-regulation.

The consensus statement authors highlighted schools as a major asset when it comes to physical activity, as socioeconomic factors may limit some children’s activity opportunities outside of school hours. Having bike lanes, parks, and playgrounds at schools “are both effective strategies for providing equitable access to, and enhancing physical activity for, children and youth,” they concluded.

Breast and Body Changes Are Driving Teen Girls Out of Sports

The New York Times

By JAN HOFFMAN

Photo

CreditHarriet Lee-Merrion

So why aren’t more teenage girls out on the playing fields?

Research shows that girls tend to start dropping out of sports and skipping gym classes around the onset of puberty, a sharp decline not mirrored by adolescent boys.

A recent study in The Journal of Adolescent Health found a surprisingly common reason: developing breasts, and girls’ attitudes about them.

In a survey of 2,089 English schoolgirls ages 11 to 18, nearly three-quarters listed at least one breast-related concern regarding exercise and sports. They thought their breasts were too big or too small, too bouncy or bound too tightly in an ill-fitting bra. Beginning with feeling mortified about undressing in the locker room, they were also self-consciously reluctant to exercise and move with abandon.

Experts on adolescent health praised the study for identifying and quantifying an intuitive thought.

“We make assumptions about what we think we know, so it’s important to be able to say that as cup size increases, physical activity decreases for a lot of girls,” Dr. Sharonda Alston Taylor, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, who focuses on adolescent obesity.

The challenge is what to do about it.

After reading the study, some pediatricians and adolescent health specialists said they needed to do a better job informing girls about breast health and development. Almost 90 percent of the girls in the study said they wanted to know more about breasts in general, and nearly half wanted to know about sports bras and breasts specifically with respect to physical activity.

Joanna Scurr, the lead author of the study and a professor of biomechanics at the University of Portsmouth in England, said the breast itself had little internal support, so when a girl’s body moved, the breast moved independently, and the movement increased with breast size. In up to 72 percent of exercising women, she said, that movement was a cause of breast pain or discomfort.

Yet while sports and physical education programs frequently recommend protective gear for boys, like cups, athletic supporters and compression shorts, comparable lists for young women rarely include a mandatory or even recommended sports bra.

Only 10 percent of the girls surveyed said they always wore a sports bra during sports and exercise. More than half had never worn one.

Dr. Taylor said that lack of education about bra fitting and sizing was commonplace in her practice.

“The mom will say, ‘I don’t know what size she is,’ and the patient will say, ‘I just grab my sister’s or my mother’s bras to wear.’”

Using data from this study and others, the researchers from sports and exercise health departments at three British universities are trying to design school-based educational programs.

When researchers asked the girls how they would prefer to receive breast information — via a website, an app, a leaflet or a private session with a nurse — the overwhelming majority replied that they wanted a girls-only session with a female teacher.

At what age? “Most of them said 11,” Dr. Scurr said.

Andria Castillo, now 17 and a junior at Mather High School in Chicago, says she remembers that when she was around that age, she was painfully self-conscious about her breast size; she thought she was developing more slowly than everyone else.

“I felt boys and girls were making fun of me,” she said. “Even though no one called me out, I felt they were, behind my back. I was taking taekwondo, and I would look in the big mirror and try to find ways to cover myself up and hide. I asked my dad if I could stop going.”

She had a friend who had been active in sports. But in the sixth grade, the girl’s breasts developed rapidly. “She eventually stopped going to gym altogether,” Ms. Castillo said. “Instead, she just went to a classroom and did her homework.”

In time, Ms. Castillo turned her attitude around; she is now on her school’s varsity water polo and swim teams. She credits not only her mother, but also a Chicago-based project, Girls in the Game, which has body-positive, confidence-building programs, including single-sex athletics.

Some experts in female adolescent obesity and fitness suggested that young girls would be more comfortable in single-sex gym classes. But others said that option had its disadvantages, too.

Kimberly Burdette, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Loyola University Chicago who looks at the psychological factors that promote well-being and healthy weight in girls, says such separation might be helpful at a time when adolescent girls had a heightened awareness that others were looking at their bodies.

“It’s hard to be in the zone, focusing on athletic movement, on what your body can do, if you’re thinking about what others think your body looks like,” she said. “I like programming that is for girls only, where a girl can try a sport, regardless of her ability, without the male gaze.”

But Elizabeth A. Daniels, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, disagreed. “I’m not sure the concern or embarrassment is always just about boys,” she said, noting that girls can make derisive comments about one another. “So do we change the structure of the gym class or address respectful behavior?”