Nobel Prize winner economist Amartya Sen claimed in his book ‘The Argumentative Indian’ that women’s well-being has far reaching implications like hitting men with life threatening diseases. In this book’s ‘Gender Inequality and Adult Diseases’ section he stated that –
“The suffering of women (particularly in the form of maternal undernourishment) ultimately hits men even harder than women (through heart disease and premature death).”
– Amartya Sen
It is well understood that when a fetus takes nourishment from its mother a malnourished mother is likely to give birth to a malnourished child as well. However, whether these are the cause of heart disease (one primary cause of men’s death) in males is a question that only Biologists can answer.
The factors related to heart problems as listed by doctors are –
- Male gender
- High blood cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Physical inactivity
- Excess weight
- Unhealthy eating
- Increasing age
- High resting heart rate
- Kidney disease
- Depression and stress
- Family history
The point 9, that says ‘Increasing Age’ is one factor of heart disease almost nullifies Sen’s claim that increased heart disease in males is due to undernourishment of their mothers. In fact, the lifestyle issues mentioned above (like high cholesterol, smoking, unhealthy eating etc.) clearly signifies that males develop the risk of heart disease only at an adult age and malnourishment of their mothers has nothing to do with this problem.
From this international perspective on coronary heart disease (CHD) it becomes clear that in industrialized nations this is more prevalent and hence researchers think that there are more factors to CHD than just biological factors. They also found men’s lifestyle related problems like smoking and drinking and taking up stressful jobs make them prone to such life threatening diseases compared to women. This study too does not relate high heart disease rate among men to be related to the ill-health of their mothers.
To understand if the issue of death of male babies, we need to understand the cause of death of male fetus during pregnancy and then during their infancy (under 5 years of age). This is the period when mother’s health can significantly affect a child’s health.
Death of male fetus
According to researchers of University Hospital Bristol, Barth Syndrome may be the cause of recurrent fetal loss, miscarriage and stillbirth of male fetus. It also says that some of the Barth Syndrome can cause cardiac failure as early as 18 weeks.
To understand Barth Syndrome better that indeed causes death of male fetus we need to see this report by the medicinal researchers published in 2010. This report states
“Barth Syndrome (BTHS) is an X-linked multisystem disorder usually diagnosed in infancy and characterized by cardiac problems…”
This study shows that a predominant cause (still unidentified) may be BTHS and also confirms that it has roots in gene mutation. So certain families have history of death of only male fetus due to heart disease because of BTHS. However, the root cause of that seems to be mutation and not patriarchal oppression (like not giving nutritious food to mother or discriminating against her etc.) because these mothers could give birth to healthy female babies.
Death of infants
This report by World Health Organization summarizes the newborn and child mortality well –
It can be seen from above that in newborns (0-4 weeks after birth) Asphyxia is a major cause of death of newborns (no gender distinction made in WHO report). It can be noted that some part of Asphyxia may also be due to poorly formed heart and lung of a baby.
A major cause of heart defect in children is known as Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (commonly known as ‘hole in the heart’). In this, a child is born with poorly formed left heart and thus suffer asphyxia that could lead to death. Most medical literature available on this topic says the cause of occurrence of this disease in children in unknown.
When even most modern medical practitioners are not sure about the right reasons for children developing heart problems, it is unlikely that an Economist had the answer.
From the scientific evidences we find that there is no reason to believe that gender inequality of a society that may have undernourished mothers will in fact lead to more death of boys and men due to heart disease. In fact, we find that this is a scary attempt by Prof. Sen to deviate our focus from dealing with a major male issue and pushing them to death.
*This article does not deny the importance of maternal healthcare in children’s health but the findings here shows it can’t be made the primary cause of premature death of male babies as Prof Sen suggested.