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Men and boys drown more than women: Why and how to help

Social pressure and estimating risk can be some of the influences on their water safety choices.
/ Source: TODAY

A number of tragic drowning cases have made headlines this summer. A father of four dove into a lake to save his 3-year-old son from drowning and died after rescuing the toddler. Then a 22-year-old honeymooner drowned during his first swim in the ocean. And there were two beloved teachers from an Iowa community who were found dead in a pool.

These heartbreaking stories highlight the importance of water safety, but also point to another trend: Men drown more often than women.

“Men predominate all injuries and they certainly do when it comes drowning,” Dr. Linda Quan, an emergency attending physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council, told TODAY. "It is more likely that a male will drown than a female and it starts really early, at 1 year old."

Hand reaching for horizon in the ocean
Men are way more likely to die from drowning than women and the experts know why and how to reduce it. Getty Images stock

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said about 80% of people who die from drowning are male. And there’s a long history of data that shows men are more likely to plunge into the water than women.

Frank Farley, the Laura H. Carnell Professor of psychological studies in education at Temple University, has been studying heroism and examining data from the Carnegie Hero Fund. Since the organization started handing out awards in 1904, people have won the award for saving people from drowning.

“The number one most frequent site for heroism is water,” Farley told TODAY. “Men dominated 10 to one in being identified as heroes."

Trying to help a person struggling in the water is one reason why men might be more likely to drown. But there are loads of other reasons why men might put themselves in dangerous water situations, including less fear of taking chances.

“Men are more likely to be risk takers,” Quan said. “They swim outside of life-guarded areas. They are less likely to wear a life jacket. They might do more risky stuff, like jumping into quarries.”

Farley said the data he's seen supports this idea.

“When you’re talking about drowning, it is pretty physical," he said. "Men have got the edge (with physical risks) historically."

Research shows men think of scenarios that could be risky differently than women, Quan noted. So they might be less likely to recognize the danger.

“They underestimate risk,” she said, while being a little too confident in their water skills.

“They think, ‘Oh yeah, I can swim that. I am a good swimmer’ when it actually turns out that they might not be,” Quan said. “It’s not in their best interest when they have an over-estimation of their abilities with an under-estimation of their risks."

What’s more, men often give into peer pressure and are more likely to drink while swimming — both of which make it more likely they’ll be in dangerous situations.

"Alcohol," she said, "poisons your judgement and poisons a bunch of other things very useful in swimming, such as balance."

While it might sound like experts are being tough on men, Quan said a lot of recent research shows that men and women have different brain responses. There’s a physiological reason behind all these choices.

“It takes longer (for men) to develop those skills of judgement, risk estimation,” she said. “Those centers of the brain take longer for men to develop, almost until their 30s.”

Of all the age groups, male teens are most likely to drown, Quan added.

But this information shouldn't cause people despair, she said. There are many things people can do to encourage both men and women to be safe around the water — especially the use of life jackets, which Quan said should be as automatic as clicking seatbelts.

“I would like to make life jackets sexy and cool,” she said.

What can parents do to help their boys stay safe? Quan said they should start early on saying something like, “Here’s what you do and don’t do. We wear our life jackets. We learn how to swim. We are going to swim near a lifeguard and we are not going to drink alcohol.”

Establishing clear and firm boundaries about swimming at a young age means boys and men will instinctively make smarter decisions.

“We need to make that all part of the culture so it become automatic and there is not a lot of choice involved,” she said.

People looking for more water safety resources can access the Red Cross recommendations here.