Women live more years in ill health than men: Lancet gender gap study

The Lancet study called for more comprehensive sex and gender reporting to improve health outcomes.

ByChetana Belagere

Published May 05, 2024 | 7:00 AMUpdatedMay 05, 2024 | 7:00 AM

back pain

Women with ill-health live longer than their male counterparts, a study by The Lancet has revealed.

However, they will be living the extended years in poor health, it added.

The research, which covered three decades of global health data, identified back pain, depression, and dementia as major causes of disability in women, whereas men were more likely to succumb prematurely to Covid-19, heart attacks, lung cancer, and kidney disease.

Interestingly, the experts pointed out that medical research globally has predominantly focused on male subjects—ranging from cellular studies to clinical trials—thereby neglecting the biological and physiological differences between the sexes.

This oversight has led to significant gaps in the understanding and treatment of diseases in women.

The study, which examined the impact of the world’s 20 leading causes of disease, found that there were substantial differences between men and women. Nothing much has been done in three decades to bridge the health gap between them.

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More men die of Covid-19

The study highlighted how biological sex—determined by genetic and epigenetic factors—and social constructs of gender—shaped by societal norms and behaviors, played significant roles in health outcomes.

For instance, the research showed that men and women exhibited different symptoms and responses to diseases such as heart disease and cancer, necessitating different treatment approaches.

“Recognising and addressing these differences is not just about improving health outcomes,” Dr Jane Foster, a lead researcher, said. “It is also about fairness and equality in healthcare provision. Our systems need to be just as equipped to treat women as they are to treat men.”

The research highlighted that men were more likely to die prematurely from various conditions, including Covid-19, road accidents, heart, respiratory, and liver diseases. These risks increase as men age. Men faced a growing burden of fatal diseases, it said.

The study called for more comprehensive sex and gender reporting to improve health outcomes, highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on men.

“Certain health conditions, such as ischemic heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic kidney disease, exhibit gender differences that manifest early in life and escalate over time. Notably, Covid-19 disproportionately affects men, underscoring the profound impact of sex differences on health outcomes,” the researchers noted in the study.

Data from the Global Burden of Disease Study-2021 used in the research excluded gender-specific conditions such as prostate cancer or gynecological issues. It showed men were more affected by 13 of the top 20 causes of death and disease.

Dr Vedavati Patwardhan, a co-lead author from the University of California, emphasised the need for national health strategies focusing on men’s health risks, including behavioral factors like smoking and alcohol consumption.

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Women live longer, but…

Researchers said that women have longer lives but spend extended years in poor health with limited progress made in reducing the burden of conditions leading to illness and disability. It underscored the urgent need for greater attention to non-fatal consequences that limit women’s physical and mental function, especially at older ages.

One key point the study highlighted was how women and men differed in many biological and social factors that fluctuate and, sometimes, accumulate over time, resulting in them experiencing health and disease differently at each stage of life and across world regions.

Conditions like lower back pain, mental health disorders, dementia, and Alzheimer’s significantly affect women worldwide. Yet those areas received insufficient funding and attention in health systems, the study noted.

“The study is a wake-up call for countries to boost their reporting of sex and gender data,” author Sorio Flr said.

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Indian scenario

“Lower back pain disproportionately impacts women globally, with significant implications for Indian women. Lower-back pain in Indian women can often be traced back to both lifestyle and physiological factors,” Bengaluru-based gynaecologist Dr Chitra R explained.

“Conditions like osteoporosis and degenerative spinal diseases are more prevalent among women, particularly post-menopause, due to lower bone density and hormonal changes. Pregnancy also plays a significant role, with the added weight and altered posture leading to increased spinal stress,” she added.

Meanwhile, conditions such as dementia, mental health problems, and Alzheimer’s were rarely recognised by Indian families, Dr Mahesh G, clinical psychologist from Bengaluru, said.

“Women rarely open up about any problems and even if told, there is a general neglect or brushing it aside as ‘rant’ or ‘tantrums’, and that can delay the treatment,” he explained.

Healthcare disparities, cultural dynamics

Cultural and systemic biases within healthcare systems often lead to the underestimation and undertreatment of women’s pain.

Socioeconomic factors also significantly influenced the prevalence of healthcare issues among Indian women. Women in lower-income families might not have access to quality healthcare, which delays the diagnosis and treatment of several disorders.

The Lancet study highlighted that in regions like South Asia, the rate of Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) due to lower back pain was over 50 percent higher in women than in men. The alarming statistic underscored the need for urgent action in both public health policy and individual health practices.

The study concluded with a call for nations to enhance their reporting of sex and gender data, which was crucial for tailoring public health policies and individual health practices to better meet the diverse needs of men and women.

(Edited by Majnu Babu).