Diseases have gender bias

We often make glib assumptions about the differences between the ways men and women respond to health complaints, but how much solid evidence is there of a disparity in the way the genders are affected by illness?

It is well known that women in many countries tend to live longer than men. We also know that some diseases affect men more than women and vice versa.

Relatively little, however, is known about how differently men’s and women’s bodies deal with the same illnesses.

A Finnish study has broken new ground, showing that women experience more severe symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis — the chronic joint disease — than men. When researchers studied 6 000 people they found that women suffered worse pain, swelling and exhaustion than men, when the disease was at exactly the same stage.

“Hormones probably play a big part in this,” says Professor Alan Silman, clinical director of the Arthritis Research Campaign.

Differences between the male and female body build might also be to blame. “Men have a greater muscle mass than women and strong muscles allow the body to function more efficiently, thereby minimising the strain on joints,” says Silman.

The tables are turned, somewhat, when it comes to chickenpox. Research published in the British Medical Journal in 2002 found that adult men are twice as likely to die from chickenpox.

Asthma, on the other hand, is more life-threatening to women than it is to men. This could, again, be to do with hormones. Until puberty, more boys than girls develop the condition, but once sex hormones kick in, the girls take over. —

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