Gender Matters When It Comes to Illness
By Rick Nauert, PhD
Experts still know very little about gender-specific differences in illness, particularly when it comes to disease symptoms, social and psychological factors, and the ramifications of these differences for treatment and prevention. But a new article highlights evidence for considerable differences between the sexes in five domains — cardiovascular disease, cancer, liver diseases, osteoporosis, and pharmacology.
Medical research has focused almost exclusively on male patients. Given the seriousness of cardiovascular (CVD) disease, the knowledge that it presents markedly different symptoms in women can be critically important.
While a constricted chest and pain that radiates through the left arm are standard signs of heart attack in men, in women the usual symptoms are nausea and lower abdominal pain.
Although heart attacks in women are more severe and complicated, when complaining of these non-specific symptoms women often do not receive the necessary examination procedures, such as an ECG, enzyme diagnostic tests or coronary angiography.
Another serious illness is colon cancer, the second most common form of cancer among men and women. Women contract this disease at a later stage in life than men. Colon tumors are often located in a different part of the colon among women, and they respond better to specific chemical treatments.
Furthermore, gender also has an impact on the patient’s responsiveness to chemotherapy administered to treat cancer, such as colon, lung, or skin cancer.
Primary biliary cirrhosis is a liver disease that primarily affects women. The authors of the study provide clear evidence that for this disease and chronic hepatitis C, the genetic makeup and differing hormone levels of females are a primary risk factor.
Osteoporosis is another disease that primarily affects women, although men can also develop this disease. In fact, osteoporosis is often overlooked in male patients resulting in a higher mortality rate among men suffering bone fractures.
In the study, Giovannella Baggio, M.D., and her team showed variation between men and women in the pharmacology of aspirin and other substances.
Differences in action and side effects are attributable to different body types, varying reaction times in the absorption and elimination of substances, and a fundamentally different hormonal status.
As such, effective and safe medication administration should take the patient’s gender into account.
Researchers believe additional and more far-reaching clinical investigations of gender differences are needed in order to eliminate fundamental inequalities between men and women in the treatment of disease.