13 Common Health Conditions That Affect Men and Women Differently
For years, the treatments for various illnesses were one-size-fits-all, but researchers have recently discovered stark differences in the ways that men and women experience disease. Here’s what you need to know.
Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, but men are more at risk at an earlier age. On average, women develop heart disease about a decade later due to the protective effects of the female hormone estrogen. Heart attack symptoms are often less vague and specific in women, often including shortness of breath, nausea, jaw, neck or back pain, and fatigue rather than classic chest pain. The traditional risk factors for heart disease are generally the same for both genders: family history, smoking, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and diabetes or metabolic syndrome. “Ironically, however, women have a higher mortality from heart disease than men due to both underdiagnosis and undertreatment,” Poulina Uddin, MD, a cardiologist at the Scripps Women’s Heart Center in San Diego. Women are also more likely than men to develop small vessel disease, a condition where blockages occur in the tiny vessels within the heart muscle rather than in the large, surface arteries. “Postmenopausal women, in particular, are subject to a sudden and unusual change in the shape of the heart muscle known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy that occurs in response to severe emotional stress,” says Mehran Movassaghi MD, urologist and men’s health specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Also called ‘broken heart syndrome,’ the condition is characterized by chest pain and changes in the heart’s electrical activity that mimic a heart attack.” These are the heart disease risk factors you might now know about.
Another name for high blood pressure, hypertension affects around 85 million people each year. This number is growing, according to the World Health Organization, which points the blame at processed foods and their high levels of salt. While hypertension is more common in young men than young women, a new study published in the journal of Biodemography and Social Biology showed serious gender disparities when it comes to diagnosing hypertension between the sexes. The findings suggest that regular medical visits are critical for improving hypertension awareness among both men and women and encourage healthcare providers not to assume that women are in the clear.
Breast cancerAfrica Studio/Shutterstock
Most women are well aware of their risks of breast cancer: About 1 in 8 U.S. women (12 percent) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, according to breastcancer.org. But men get breast cancer to, and they typically receive a much worse diagnosis than women. “Any woman living in the U.S. has been told a thousand times that she needs to have breast examinations and mammograms,” says Lee Loewinger, MD, a cardiologist at Brooklyn Cardiovascular Care, PLLC, in New York. “However, there is very little education for males about this cancer, so men tend to be less proactive about getting a breast lump examined.” When it is diagnosed in men, the cancer is much more likely to be more advanced, more dangerous, and more difficult to treat. Adding to these issues, Dr. Loewinger points out that males have less breast tissue than females, and male breast cancer is more frequently found under or near the nipple, which makes it easier to miss on exam.
While many of the risk factors for stroke are the same for both genders, including a family history of stroke, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, some risk factors are unique to women. These include taking birth control pills, being pregnant, using hormone replacement therapy (HRT), having frequent migraine headaches, and having a thick waist, a common trait in postmenopausal women. These reasons may substantiate why about 55,000 more women have a stroke each year than men, explains Dr. Movassaghi. “Another possible explanation is women’s longer average life span, since advancing age is a key element in stroke risk.” Symptoms of stroke are often different, too. As Thomas C. Royer, MD, co-author of Breaking Out of the Health Care Abyss: Transformational Tips for Agents of Change, points out, men often showcase classic complaints of numbness and weakness of an extremity, difficulty walking, double vision, and sensory abnormalities, while women often complain of generalized weakness, altered mental status and fever, and hence, often have a “missed-diagnosis” until the stroke is full-blown. These are the surprising health risks men need to watch out for.
This disease, which affects approximately 30.3 million Americans (9.4 percent of the population), tends to be more severe in women than men. “Researchers speculates that HDL, or ‘good,’ cholesterol, which is normally higher in women than men, may be behind the gender disparity,” says Dr. Movassaghi. “When you get diabetes, the high triglycerides (blood fats) drive down HDL levels in women—and the combination of high triglycerides and low HDL adds up to a greater risk of heart disease.” Other research is attempting to determine whether or not the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone play a role in why women with diabetes are more vulnerable to kidney disease than men with the same condition. One thing researchers do know is that women with diabetes are lacking in estrogen, which causes testosterone to creep up. “Studies have indeed found that lower estrogen levels are associated with kidney disease, but it’s not known whether there’s a cause-effect relationship or exactly how the lack of estrogen may contribute to kidney disease,” Dr. Movassaghi explains. “If there is a sex hormone connection, perhaps women with diabetes could improve their kidney health if the balance between testosterone and estrogen were restored with hormone therapy.” He agrees, however, that more research is needed to validate such an approach.
While men tend to show the obvious signs of hair loss more than women, both genders experience this symptom of aging. Men do, however, have a higher prevalence of hair loss and experience patterns of baldness differently. “Male-pattern hair loss usually begins earlier in life and men lose from the front and vertex of the scalp,” explains Jerome Garden MD, the director of the Physicians Laser and Dermatology Institute in Chicago. This results in the typical receding hairline and the bald spot on top. “Female-pattern hair loss usually begins after age 30 and is a more subtle, diffuse hair loss with preservation of the frontal hair line.” He explains that these differences are likely the result of gender hormones—testosterone is the main drive of hair loss in men, while estrogen has a protective factor against hair loss in women. Women, however, are more likely to seek out treatment for hair loss, despite more men experiencing the condition. Unfortunately, Dr. Garden points out that the treatments for female hair loss are less than for men. “Both genders can use Minoxidil over-the-counter (brand name: Rogaine), which can help some patients, but the prescription medicine for hair loss, Finasteride (brand name: Propecia), is only approved for men.” Other less-used treatment options that can help both genders are lasers, surgical hair transplants, and wigs.
While we tend to assume both genders experience this annoying skin condition equally, especially upon hitting puberty, men tend to have it worse and it’s more difficult to treat in men than women. “This is likely due to the increased testosterone in men and the increased size of sebaceous (oil) glands in men, which results in oilier skin,” explains Dr. Garden. “However, women tend to seek out physician treatment for acne more than men.” Ironically, however the type of acne that tends to remain into one’s adult years tends to affect women more often and is a frequent reason for a woman to visit their dermatologist’s office. “During their 30s, over 25 percent of women still experience acne, while only 12 percent of men do,” Dr. Garden says. “This adult female acne can be difficult to treat and generally deserves a more hormone-centric approach to treatment options.”
Autoimmune disordersIvan Masiuk/Shutterstock
Of the 50 million Americans suffering from autoimmune diseases, an astonishing 75 percent of them are women, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, Inc. These disorders, including systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, multiple sclerosis, and primary biliary cirrhosis, cause the body’s immune system to attack its own organs. Lupus, in particular, is primarily a women’s disease, affecting about nine women for every one man. However, according to Michael Guma, DO, director of Rheumatology Riverside Medical Group in Northern New Jersey, men tend to have a more aggressive disease when they are diagnosed with Lupus, though large-scale studies are needed to fully substantiate this observation. Here are the ways heart disease is different for women.
Approximately one in every five Americans will get some form of skin cancer in their lifetime, according to skincancer.org, and men are two times more likely to get it than women. “This is likely due to increased sun exposure in men, as they tend to have higher rates of outdoor jobs,” notes Dr. Garden. “Additionally, men are less likely to be vigilant about using sunscreen or seeking shade.” Women tend to be more proactive when it comes to scheduling skin check-ups and regularly noticing skin changes, such as a changing mole. The locations for skin cancers are different as well. “Men tend to get more skin cancers on their heads and ears, likely due to having less hair to protect this skin, as well as their backs, since they are more likely to be outside without a shirt,” Dr. Garden says. “Women are more likely to get melanoma on their legs, likely due to wearing skirts.” Age is another factor, as women younger than 40 are twice as likely as men to get melanoma, possibly as a result of recreational sun tanning.
This bone-weakening disease affects about 54 million Americans, most typically those over the age of 50. Women, in particular, are at a greater risk than men, with one in two women affected compared to only one in four men. “The female hormone, estrogens, tends to have a protective effect on bone density,” explains Dr. Guma. “As a woman reaches menopause, and her levels of estrogen plummet, her rate of bone loss increases significantly.” This can result in increased chance of fractures over the course of her lives. Additionally, Dr. Guma points out that women have smaller and thinner bones than men to begin with, which also puts them at risk for the condition.
Physical conditions aren’t the only types of diseases to differ in their impact on the sexes. Depression, for example, is twice as common in women than in men. “This results, in part, from the hormonal and genetic differences that contribute to the onset of depression,” explains Dr. Guma. “Women may spend more time ruminating about negative thoughts, which has been known to worsen depression.” Anxiety is another depression-related mental illness that tends to be more common in women. When it comes to seeking out help, however, women are more likely than men to speak to a mental health professional, which may play a role in why statistics show that more women are diagnosed. “The diagnosis of depression is often harder to diagnose in men, as men tend to find something to distract them and occupy their thoughts,” Dr. Guma says. “In some cases, they may resort to risky behaviors such as unsafe sex, gambling and smoking.” Symptoms of depression can be unique for men compared to women as well. In men, depression can present with anger and irritability more often than in women, Dr. Guma points out, and men are more likely to abuse alcohol or another substance while depressed. Here are the silent signs your body might be in big trouble.
Multiple SclerosisMinerva Studio/Shutterstock
Much is still unknown about this chronic and unpredictable disease that attacks the central nervous system, though women are two to three times more likely to develop MS than men. Like many other conditions that plague more women than men, MS tends to take a more aggressive course in men. “Men usually have fewer relapses and usually have motor difficulties including trouble walking,” explains Dr. Royer. “Women, on the other hand, usually present with more sensory challenges, including visual impairment, numbness and tingling in extremities and vague muscle symptoms.” In both genders, however, early diagnosis, because of the vague symptoms, does not often occur on the first several visits to the physician.
According the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Psoriasis Report published in 2014, this chronic skin condition affects over 100 million people worldwide. Though there’s no indication that psoriasis is more common in men or women, nor are there obvious differences in physical symptoms, initial findings from PsoHappy survey, the largest of its kind on psoriasis and its impact on patients’ well-being, show that psoriasis has a significantly higher impact on the well being of women in comparison to men. “Women often show lower levels of self-confidence, feel greater loss of control and, most importantly, experience significantly higher levels of stress,” says John Zibert, PhD, psoriasis expert and Chief Medical Officer at LEO Innovation Lab. “Given the importance of appearance to women’s self-esteem and confidence levels, they may feel more emotionally vulnerable compared to men, however, related psychological problems across all genders of people living with psoriasis can affect everyday social activities and work, which can lead to embarrassment, anxiety and even depression.” Next, check out these serious disease that strike women more than men.