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SEX- AND AGE-RELATED MORTALITY PROFILES DURING FAMINE: TESTING THE ‘BODY FAT’ HYPOTHESIS

  • JOHN R. SPEAKMAN (a1) (a2)

Summary

During famines females generally have a mortality advantage relative to males, and the highest levels of mortality occur in the very young and the elderly. One popular hypothesis is that the sex differential in mortality may reflect the greater body fatness combined with lower metabolism of females, which may also underpin the age-related patterns of mortality among adults. This study evaluated the ‘body fat’ hypothesis using a previously published and validated mathematical model of survival during total starvation. The model shows that at a given body weight females would indeed be expected to survive considerably longer than males in the absence of food. At a mass of 70 kg for example a female aged 30 would survive for 144 days compared with life expectancy of only 95 days for a male of the same age and weight. This effect is contributed to by both the higher body fatness and lower metabolism of the females at a given body weight. However, females are generally smaller than males and in addition to a sex effect there was also a major effect of body size – heavier individuals survive longer. When this body size effect was removed by considering survival in relation to BMI the sex effect was much reduced, and could be offset by a relatively small difference in pre-famine BMI between the sexes. Nevertheless, combining these predictions with observed mean BMIs of males and females across 48 countries at the low end of the obesity spectrum suggests that in the complete absence of food females would survive on average about 40% longer (range 6 to 64.5%) than males. The energy balance model also predicted that older adult individuals should survive much longer than younger adult individuals, by virtue of their lower resting metabolic rates and lower activity levels. Observations of the female survival advantage in multiple famines span a much wider range than the model prediction (5% to 210%). This suggests in some famines body fatness may be a significant factor influencing the mortality differential between the sexes, but in other famines other factors are likely to be more important. Moreover, the pattern of mortality in relation to age is completely opposite that predicted. These data emphasize the complex nature of famine mortality and suggest that a simple model of energy utilization alone is inadequate to explain the major aspects of this phenomenon.

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SEX- AND AGE-RELATED MORTALITY PROFILES DURING FAMINE: TESTING THE ‘BODY FAT’ HYPOTHESIS

  • JOHN R. SPEAKMAN (a1) (a2)

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