Putting aside obvious differences in diseases like prostate cancer (only affects men) and ovarian cancer (only affects women), medical data has historically been affected by gender-biases. This means that the rate of occurrence, mortality rate or symptoms are not the same in men as in women.
Nicole Bender’s article on Vital Record explains how diseases affect men and women differently, with data from Dr. Farida Sohrabji of the Department of Neurosciences and Experimental Therapeutics at Texas A&M College of Medicine. She notes that the same disease may biologically present itself in men and women differently, and that sex (being male or female) affects diseases on a biological level, whereas gender (based on behavioral, social, and psychological factors) might impact the manner in which a person responds to such diseases.
Difference in reaction by sex
One example of different biological reactions in different sexes can be seen in stroke victims. Usually, the symptoms of a stroke are the drooping of one side of the face, slurred speech or the inability to raise your hand above your shoulder. However, women may report their stroke symptoms very differently – women often experience a headache or migraine, pain in the jaw or neck or feel confused and anxious.
This could mean that women may be misdiagnosed or fail to recognise the occurrence – and seek immediate treatment – in the absence of wide-spread knowledge regarding these differences.
Difference in reaction by gender
While the physiology of men and women may present different symptoms to the same disease, gender differences also play a role. Cultural attitudes often drive how diseases are diagnosed and progress in men versus women.
For instance, men may not get tested for diseases like breast cancer because people think it only affects women. Men also don’t get diagnosed or treated for pituitary adenomas (small tumors that form on the pituitary gland) until much later even though they tend to develop larger tumors; this is because it’s also prevalent in women with irregular menstruation or inability to conceive, and they’re more likely to see a doctor in the earlier stages.
Men and women have different levels of hormones: men have more testosterone, women have more progesterone and estrogen.
Pre-menopausal women often have lower rates of infections because estrogen is an anti-inflammatory compound – however, it also means that women also tend to suffer from autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis or lupus at much higher levels. As women progress towards menopause, they will begin to develop diseases – like stroke – as the protective estrogen levels drop. Since women tend to outlive men, these diseases may affect more women than men as they grow older.
Reactions to medication
The difference in sex also present in medication, since they metabolise in men differently than they do in women. This could result in negative side effects if improperly prescribed. For instance, 100mg of medication works for a 200lb man, but it cannot simply be dialed down for a 150lb female.
What this means for the rest of us
While it’s glaringly obvious that both men and women behave and react differently to the same diseases, many basic medical studies still tend to be conducted on males only because of cost and convenience, since they don’t have to account for variables resulting from women’s estrous cycle. Luckily, clinical trials – ones that result in producing drugs for the general public – require both male and female participation.
Even though diseases are often generalised, healthcare is becoming more specialised and individualised. We can all make better health decisions by taking into account not only someone’s genetic makeup and age, but also their sex and gender.