By David Yamaguchi The North American Post
ANYONE OF A CERTAIN AGE who grew up watching “Tora-san” films with Issei grandparents will recall the famous phrase from the movie series above. It means “it is tough to be a man.” Today I employ the line as a way of introducing the topic of men’s survivorship, or lack of it, that is starting to stare people of my sixty-something vintage in the face.
In introducing this topic, I recall what the father of the young couple who moved in next door to me a few years ago said. The father is also a Sansei, albeit one a few years older than me. We said hello when he visited his daughter and son-in-law and I was working in the yard.
“When you get into your early 60s, you will start to know people who have died,” the father explained.
His words complemented those of one of my aunts, who explained it to me more starkly, a decade ago, when I was trying to make sense of the disappearance of Nisei men.
“The men don’t last.”
Without any further beating around the bush, let us examine the mortality pattern that lies behind these statements. They are summarized by the upper line in the graph.
The line shows how the numbers of males relative to females decrease over a lifespan. The male decline happens in two phases from about age 17.
At first, from birth to 17 years of age, the number of boys relative to girls remains consistent at about 105 to 100. The excess of boys is nature’s way of saying that more boys need to be born than girls. Later life stages explain why.
The first decline phase runs from about age 17 to about age 63. Across it, the number of men falls steadily. At age 35, the number of men and women reaches parity. It hovers there to about age 40. By age 60, the ratio is about 92 men per 100 women.
The start of the loss of men probably reflects the declining influence of parental supervision, coinciding with the start of solo driving. Men also participate in risky activities at higher rates, including hazardous work (military service, construction, logging, deep-sea fishing…) and recreation (binge drinking, illegal drugs…)
It is the third phase of men’s lives, however, that is of primary interest to Baby Boomer Sansei readers today. For after age 63, male survival begins to drop off a cliff. It is as if we arrive at the start of the steep “black-diamond” expert portion of a ski slope. However, unlike skiing, we cannot take a peek, then choose an alternative, more gently inclined way down. If we get this far, we are already committed to the precipitous path.
The general patterns of male and female longevity shown here for the US prevail internationally. Thus, the differential long-term survival of men and women is the human condition.
WHY MEN FADE is a reasonable question to ponder. At birth, more boys are born than girls to ensure that there will be enough boys when they are needed to propagate the species.
More boys are essential as the male propensity to take risks is universal. For across the tens of thousands of years of our evolution, it has been men who have thrown spears into large animals to feed the village. The animals dislike it.
Girls, by contrast, share a female pattern of longevity that is harder to understand. I remember the question being raised in my college introductory biology class in the 1970s. Why do women live longer than men, if most phenomena in nature are driven by natural selection acting at the point of reproduction? That is, if the genes of those who produce the most offspring persist in the population, then women’s ages at death should be irrelevant.
Today we know that the key for evolutionary survival is not merely producing the most offspring. Rather, it is producing the most that survive. It is thus in enhancing children’s and grandchildren’s survival that how long mothers and grandmothers live matters. This happens because all those with a spare nickel spend it on their children and grandchildren.
By contrast, how long a grandfather lives matters less, because, well, if older men have extra time and resources, they spend it on making and drinking grog with their friends. Grandchildren—and village children—are no better nor worse off.
IN DISCUSSING THE WRITING of this column with a friend, she advised me to “not go there… it is too dark.” But my view is that we men need to know what we are up against to deal with it.
In this spirit, the one positive point about the graph of men’s survivorship is the improved shape of the curve from the 2010 census over that from the 2000 census. The difference shows that while the overall form of the curve is probably immutable, that its specific shape is not. That is, we men can bend the curve, through taking better care of ourselves.
Sensing what was starting to happen around me, I got all my overdue health check-ups done in 2016 and again in 2019. I have upped my exercise, in response to a doctor’s advice that I lose some weight. Later, I removed nearly all alcohol from my home.
Since those first baby steps, I have also largely eliminated red meat from my diet. Dairy has long been almost gone, other than the little I add to my cereal and coffee.
As I am human, I still enjoyed downing a beer, when out with friends on weekends, through February 2020. But the frequency was a fraction of what it had been.
Since the pandemic, my weekly toasts have become even more restricted. For my guidepost now is staying below the 23 BMI level needed for long-term Asian health. This in turn requires that I exercise about 40 minutes daily, as tracked by my phone.
My present, simple, home-centered life is all not regimen and no play, however. I view it as training for my post-pandemic life, which will include resuming occasional trips to Japan. To enjoy such travel fully, I will need to be able to walk well, including carrying luggage up long flights of stairs in rural train stations. I hope to do so for some time yet.
How about you?