By Betty Russell, Pure Matters
Health can be confusing, regardless of gender. But women have an added disadvantage. In the past, medicine was dominated by a male point of view. And early medical research focused on -- you guessed it -- men.
"Now there's a growing understanding that there are significant gender differences in health care," says Wendy Klein, M.D., an internal medicine and women's health specialist.
A report by the Institute of Medicine emphasized that researchers needed to know the differences in biology between men and women, with the aim of improving medical practice and therapies. Differences between men and women exist at the system, organ, tissue, cellular and sub-cellular level, according to the Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR). Men and women also differ in their response to medications.
Some differences between men and women are obvious. But others go beyond basic anatomy. Here are some ways your health may vary from that of the men in your life.
Women often don't have "classic" heart attack symptoms.
Heart attacks on TV or the big screen tend to go something like this: The victim clutches his chest and falls to his knees. Although these scenes can be dramatic, they can also be misleading.
"Classic heart attack symptoms, like crushing chest pain and pain in the arm, may be classic for men," says family physician Judy Chamberlain, M.D., a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians' board of directors. "But women often have more subtle symptoms, such as shortness of breath, a burning sensation, or palpitations. They often feel something new and sense that it isn't right, but don't know what it is."
The nation's leading killer, heart disease claims more women than men every year. Women are also more likely than men to die in the first year following a heart attack. Yet many women don't realize heart disease is the main threat to their health. "It scares me that women worry more about breast cancer than their hearts," Dr. Chamberlain says.
Smoking and drinking are more dangerous for women.
Tobacco is deadly to both men and women, yet smoking can take a worse toll on women. Women who smoke are more likely to have a heart attack than men who smoke, the SWHR says. Women who smoke are also more likely to develop diabetes, high cholesterol, stroke, and lung disease, including lung cancer. Nonsmoking women face a greater risk for lung cancer than nonsmoking men.
What's worse, quitting smoking is tougher for women. Women have more severe withdrawal symptoms. And although men are addicted to the nicotine, women find it harder to give up both the nicotine and the physical habit.
A woman younger than 50 who drinks the same amount of alcohol as a man of the same age will get drunker because more alcohol will reach her blood. That's because women produce less of a stomach enzyme that digests alcohol. The less alcohol that is digested, the more that ends up in the blood.
Drinking also puts a woman at higher risk for breast cancer, hearts problems, and stroke. It is also more difficult for a woman who regularly drinks to become pregnant.
Women are more likely to be clinically depressed or have an anxiety disorder.
When women are down in the dumps, they may think they should just snap out of it. Often it's not that easy.
The incidence of depression is rising in women. In fact, women are two to three times more likely than men to face the destructive effects of depression. Women also experience depression differently from men: Women are more likely to have sleep and appetite problems. Depression is also a serious health threat at times when women expect to be happiest: during and after pregnancy.
Women are much more likely to have an anxiety disorder and have panic attacks, the SWHR says.
Response to drugs
Women may react differently to certain medications.
Women usually weigh less than men, but have more body fat. They also have smaller organs. These differences may affect how a woman's body reacts to medication, the SWHR says.
Certain high blood pressure medications and antibiotics are more effective in women. A woman's menstrual cycle can affect the way some antidepressants work. Anesthesia isn't as effective in women. They wake up more quickly and are much more likely to say they were awake during surgery.