The Grapevine

Battle Of The Sexes: Symptoms, Diseases, And Medical Conditions That Affect Men And Women Differently

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Seven medical conditions, including heart disease, STIs, and brain disorders, have different symptoms, different impact, or different distribution across the sexes. Franck Fife, Getty Images

Health is not gender neutral. Some physiological conditions impact only men or only women. Pregnancy certainly falls in this category as do cancers of sex-specific reproductive system organs. Yet, some medical conditions occur in both sexes but affect men and women in different ways. The following seven medical conditions in particular have different symptoms, different impact, or different distribution across the sexes.

Heart disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, yet two clear differences remain hidden behind this fact. First, most symptoms of a heart attack are shared by both sexes, yet some strike women and men in different ways. For instance, the classic portrait of a heart attack, where a man widens his eyes in surprise, clutches his chest, and then crumples to the ground, is realistic enough for many people. However, some men and many women experience much more subtle signs of myocardial infarction.

A heart attack is not a complete stop of the heart, rather, it is muscle damage caused by reduced blood flow, which deprives the heart of needed oxygen for proper functioning. For this reason, the signs of heart attack include chest pressure, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, pain in the lower chest, upper back pressure, dizziness, and extreme fatigue, according to the American Heart Association. Women, in particular, are less likely to feel chest pressure than men, and more likely to feel an assortment of other signs instead. Many times women don’t even realize they’ve experienced an attack — despite the fact that heart attacks are more often severer in women.

For this same reason, women are more likely to die following a heart attack, according to the National Institutes of Health, and, in the first six years following an attack, women are almost twice as likely as men to have a second one.

osteoporosis osteoporosis Reuters

Bone Health

Women are clearly the weaker sex when it comes to bone health. Osteoporosis, which means “porous bone,” is a disease that affects the bones, causing them to become weak and fragile and therefore more likely to break. Of the estimated 10 million Americans with osteoporosis, about eight million are women, calculates the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Nearly one out of every two women over age 50 will break a bone because of osteoporosis.

Women tend to have smaller, thinner bones than men, plus hormonal changes as they age contribute to this disease. Specifically, estrogen helps maintain bone mass, so dwindling amounts of this vital hormone following menopause results in decreased bone density and greater fragility. Though women are more likely to suffer from bone health issues, one in five men over the age of 50 also experiences osteoporotic fractures.

Brain Disorders

Autism spectrum disorders impair a person’s ability to communicate and interact. Common behaviors among people with autism include difficulty with social interactions and conversation, obsessive interests, and repetitive behaviors. The term “spectrum” refers to autism's wide range of possible symptoms, skills, and levels of disability. While autism occurs in every racial and ethnic group, boys are four to five times more likely to develop this disorder than girls.

Similarly, doctors more commonly diagnose attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in boys than girls.

Depression, on the other hand, impacts twice as many women as men and is considered the most common mental health problem among women. An oft-quoted statistic is that nearly one in every four middle-aged women take antidepressants, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calculates one out of every 10 women between the ages of 18 and 44 years old has experienced symptoms of major depression in the past year. Anxiety is also more prevalent among women than men.

sexual differences sexual differences Reuters

Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Infections

Nearly 20 million people, including nine million women, get a sexually transmitted disease (STD) each year in the United States. Half of all new infections affect people between the ages of 15 and 24. During unprotected vaginal sex, women have a higher risk than men of getting an STD, while unprotected anal sex puts women at even greater risk. Although not classified as sexually transmitted, urinary tract infections, which result from sex, affect women in higher numbers than men.

Infections that are sexually transmitted more seriously affect women than men in many cases. The primary reason for this is many STDs are simply more difficult to detect in women or they easily become confused with a yeast infection or other less serious conditions.

Left untreated, STDs cause infertility in at least 24,000 women every year in the U.S. Possible causes of infertility, chlamydia and gonorrhea also raise the risk of chronic pelvic pain and ectopic pregnancy. Untreated syphilis in pregnant women results in infant death up to 40 percent of the time.

Stroke

A stroke occurs when blood supply to the brain is blocked or when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures, causing brain tissue to die. Stroke is the third leading cause of death for women and fifth leading cause of death for men, according to the National Stroke Association. Each year 55,000 more women than men experience stroke.

Some risk factors for stroke are the same for both men and women. These include a family history of stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, drinking too much alcohol, and being inactive. However some risk factors are unique to women:

  • Taking birth control pills
  • Pregnancy
  • Using hormone replacement therapy to relieve menopausal symptoms
  • Frequent migraine headaches
  • Having a thick waist (larger than 35.2 inches) combined with high blood fat levels

TBI Traumatic Brain Injury Reuters

Traumatic Brain Injury

When a bump, blow, jolt, or other injury to the head causes damage to the brain, this is called a traumatic brain injury (TBI). The worst injuries can lead to permanent brain damage or death. Millions of people in the U.S. suffer brain injuries each year and more than half end up in the hospital. Half of all TBIs are from car accidents.

TBIs discriminate against men more than women. More men suffering a TBI ended up in the hospital; even worse, men are nearly three times as likely to die from a head injury as women. That said, the incidence of  TBIs in the U.S. increased 57 percent among teens between 2001 and 2009.

Alcohol Abuse

Most people who drink excessively are not alcoholics, and, as defined by the CDC, excessive drinking is a different matter across the sexes due to differences in metabolism. Blood alcohol levels reach higher concentrations in women after drinking an equal amount of alcohol as a man. For this reason, binge drinking, the most common form of alcohol excess, is defined as consuming four or more drinks during a single occasion for women and five or more for men, while heavy drinking is defined as consuming eight or more drinks each week for a woman and 15 or more for a man.

Though they have more wiggle room, men are twice as likely to become dependent on alcohol as women. That said, women feel the health effects of alcohol abuse and addiction more seriously than men. These effects include an increased risk for breast cancer and heart disease. Drinking is known to increase the risk of depression so alcohol has a more profound impact on women’s mental health.

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