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Women often outlive men, but have poorer health

By Vaseline May30,2024

Women suffer more often from lower back pain, depression and headaches. Men, on the other hand, live shorter because they are more often involved in traffic accidents and suffer more often from cardiovascular disease and, in recent years, from COVID-19 – both possible causes of premature death.

This is evident from an analysis published in The Lancet Public Health log. Researchers looked at gender differences in the top 20 causes of illness and death, across all ages and regions of the world.

“Over their lifetime, women will spend more time in poor health, while men suffer from conditions that are more likely to kill them,” Luisa Sorio Flor, one of the study’s authors, told DW.

What causes the differences in diseases between women and men?

Most of the differences between the sexes become apparent during adolescence. That is the moment when not only biological differences, but also gender norms start to have an impact on people’s lives, the researchers write in their paper.

“It’s not just about the biological body you are born into. It’s about the gender experience of the environment you live in that contributes to those measured differences,” Sarah Hawkes told DW. Hawkes is a professor of global public health at University College London and was not involved in the research.

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For the purposes of this article, we use the following definitions of sex and gender:

Sex refers to biological characteristics, such as hormone levels and sexual anatomy.

Sex describes socially constructed roles, but can also represent an unequal distribution of power in a society.

“We know that there is a bias in healthcare systems where they will more easily diagnose women with mental disorders,” said Luisa Sorio Flor, who is also an assistant professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in the US. At the same time, men are less likely to get help for mental health problems due to perceived masculine norms that work against their seeking or receiving help.

Women in pain are taken less seriously

The high number of musculoskeletal complaints, such as low back pain, in women is less easy to explain. Biological factors, such as increased pain sensitivity due to fluctuating hormones, differences in skeletal shapes and the physical stress of pregnancy and childbirth, can all play a role here.

But research shows that women with pain are also often dismissed from the doctor and undertreated when they seek help. A recent study found that health professionals of both genders are less likely to provide support for low back pain if the patient is female.

And a study into why women have lower back pain found that women are often in worse condition than men when they begin a rehabilitation program. The authors suggested there could be a triple burden at play: they said work, maintaining a household and caring responsibilities could prevent women from accessing appropriate services.

No improvement in women’s care over time

Conditions that disproportionately affect women, such as low back pain or depressive disorders, have shown much smaller or minimal declines since 1990 compared to conditions that affect more men.

“I think there is a tendency within global healthcare systems to equate women’s health with their reproductive capacity. So women’s health is all about what their uterus does,” says Hawkes.

How to close the gap between women and men

A first step to closing the gap is collecting better data, The Lancet researchers said. Because consistently collecting health data categorized by sex and gender is still not standard practice.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of this. If we had had more specific data on sex and gender, health interventions could have been better targeted, Hawkes said.

“Our results are quite clear,” says Sorio Flor. “The health needs of men and women are simply different.” The researchers want governments to spend more money on health care, especially on conditions that affect women more than men. Things like mental health care remain underfunded, they said.

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