Across the world, the number of people dying at a young age has reassuringly fallen since the 1950s. However, if you dig deeper into the statistics, a worrying trend emerges: the proportion of young men and boys dying is on the rise in most parts of the world.
According to a huge analysis published in the medical journal The Lancet, around 61 percent of all deaths among 10 to 24-year-olds worldwide occurred in males last year. The overall number of adolescent deaths is down from previous decades, but the gap between males and females is growing. Since 1950, deaths in 10 to 24-year-old women globally have decreased by 30 percent, but the decrease was just 15 percent in young men.
Around 4,000 adolescents die each day globally — and the majority will be male in every single part of the world. This gender gap is widening in most regions, except for high-income countries, central Europe, eastern Europe, and central Asia, where the gender disparity has slimmed down over the past 30 years although still exists.
When it comes to understanding this trend, there’s much to untangle and there is no easy answer since there are subtle differences seen in different parts of the world.
Generally, mortality rates were closely linked with a country's level of development, with richer countries having fewer youth deaths and vice versa. The leading cause of death among young people also varied between regions. The prime cause of adolescent deaths was due to accidents in all regions bar high-income countries, where cancer was the leading cause, and south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where transmissible diseases from contaminated food or water led the way.
Of all deaths between ages 10 to 24 globally, 32 percent were due to unintentional injuries, violence, and conflict; 32 percent were due to communicable diseases, nutritional deficiencies, or maternal causes; and 27 percent were due to non-communicable diseases. The remaining 8 percent were due to suicide.
Since 1980, deaths from communicable disease have fallen sharply as a proportion of total deaths in most parts of the world, except in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where they remain common. In Latin America and the Caribbean, interpersonal violence remained a significant contributor to young male deaths and there has been little to no improvement in all-cause mortality in older adolescent males there over the past 20 years.
The underlying causes behind all of these patterns are multi-faceted and vary from region to region. This means there's no "one-size-fits-all" solution to the problem. In their paper, the researchers conclude by saying that future efforts to reduce global adolescent deaths must ensure that boys and young men do not get left behind.
"The scale of the difference in mortality burden between males and females is quite striking," Dr Joseph Ward, lead study author from University College London, told NPR. "What's driving those patterns is complex, and definitely warrants further investigation."