It has been proven that women live longer than men. Their life expectancy is 74.2 years, while that of men is 69.8 years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). However, women use more health services, face bigger disabilities and have comparatively less social protection. Similarly, there are diseases that are exclusive to women and are linked to female organs.
In addition to these diseases, chronic diseases affect women differently. Women tend to acquire them at younger ages than men. In fact, women may present different symptoms than men and therefore may need different treatment for the same disease.
Diseases such as anxiety and depression affect more women than men. Plus, osteoarthritis and sexually transmitted diseases are more severe in women, and they are more likely to die after a heart attack. So why are there diseases that exclusively affect women?
Diseases exclusive to women
There are diseases that are exclusive to women because of their genital organs. For example, diseases related to pregnancy, menopause and general gynecological conditions (such as uterine fibroids, pelvic floor disorders, uterine fibroids or vaginitis) that only affect women. That is why they require specific and specialized care.
However, gynecological symptoms can lead to diseases that are not exclusive to women. Indeed, if a woman has irregular menstruation, it may indicate an eating disorder, thyroid dysfunction or Cushing’s Syndrome (elevated levels of cortisol, used in the body’s response to stress), which affect both genders equally.
In addition, it is important to keep in mind that the use of the health system is different between genders. Women used it for pregnancies, with prenatal care, and in case of miscarriage (spontaneous abortion and stillbirth), birth defects, or to address postpartum depression, which affects 20 percent of new mothers. Likewise, when a woman has fertility problems, her treatment is gender specific.
Finally, women require a differentiated attention for their overall well-being, as they suffer more from domestic violence and physical and sexual assault, as well as self-inflicted injuries, the second leading cause of death among women between 15 and 29 years of age. Women are also more affected by health systems disruptions because they have difficulty accessing primary health care.
Syndromes related to women
There are also two conditions that affect only females: The Turner syndrome and the Rett syndrome. The first one is a genetic disease which affects 1 out of 2.500 girls. This syndrome causes the girl’s growth to slow down, so she will always be shorter than her peers. However, if diagnosed early, it is possible to treat the disease with growth hormones.
Turner syndrome also makes women infertile, but thanks to medical technology advances, in vitro fertilization and hormone treatment can help increase the chance of pregnancy. This disease also provokes physical features such as abnormal bone development, absence of menstruation, or drooping eyelids.
This syndrome occurs because girls are missing one of the X chromosomes (females have XX chromosomes while males have XY chromosomes) or are missing part of the second X chromosome. In other words, it’s a random error in the cell division when the parents’ cells joined together.
Finally, women with this syndrome may suffer from other health problems including kidney problems, heart problems, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, vision, thyroid or bone problems. Thus, although it is a disease exclusive to women, it leads to other non-gender conditions.
On the other hand, the Rett syndrome, which is also a genetic disorder, affects the way the brain develops, and the woman will progressively lose motor and speech skills. Babies with this syndrome seem to develop normally until they are 18 months old. Then, they begin to lose crawling, walking and talking skills, as well as the use of their hands.
Eventually, girls begin to have muscle problems and may develop seizures and intellectual disability. They may also have involuntary repetitive hand movements or strange eye movements such as constant blinking, closing only one eye, or crossing them.
This disease is caused by a genetic mutation that occurs randomly in a gene called MECP2. However, in some rare cases, it is an inherited disease. It is important to clarify that this syndrome also affects men, but to a lesser extent. In fact, because of the combination of chromosomes, many of them do not make it to birth or die during the first days of life.
Autoimmune Diseases: The Clinical Mystery
The immune system is intelligent and remembers what the body got sick from and how to fight what made it sick. However, sometimes the body’s own cells do not recognize the body and start attacking it. This is known as autoimmunity. There are about 80 autoimmune conditions including multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
Between 3 and 10 percent of humanity suffers from an autoimmune disease, but it affects women the most. For example, in the United States 75 percent of people with an autoimmune disease are women. In fact, science has not yet been able to discover why there is this difference between genders.
Although there are factors that contribute to the development of these diseases such as the specific diet of each person, there is a theory which states that men have less autoimmune diseases because testosterone hormones reduce B cells (the immune system cells). Also, the X chromosome has more immune-related genes than the Y chromosome.
On the other hand, in low-income countries, women are more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. According to WHO, young women aged between 15 and 24 are twice as likely to acquire HIV as young men the same age. This is due to unsafe, unwanted or non-consensual sex, lack of sex education, and goes hand in hand with poor access to contraceptives.
Also, addictions such as alcohol abuse are more harmful to women because it increases the risk of breast cancer and the likelihood of heart problems. Finally, heart attacks happen to both genders equally, but a woman has risk factors that are exclusive to her gender such as taking birth control pills, using hormone replacement therapy for menopausal symptoms, or having higher triglyceride volumes.
Thus, health concerns such as menstrual cycles, pregnancy, birth control and menopause are just some examples of conditions that are exclusive to women. This means that disease prevention and treatment for women must be different than for men, and this includes physical and mental health issues.
This is why Harvard University’s or John Hopkins University’s medical center have begun to differentiate their research by gender, as they recognize that each one has specific needs. Plus, the health system must recognizes these differences and addresses them specifically.