Men May Die Quicker, but Women Don't Have to Get Sicker
There is an old saying in the field of public health that "women get sicker, but men die quicker." At all ages, men's mortality rate exceeds that of women, yet women tend to report poorer health. I've witnessed this orthodoxy play out in my own life as nearly all the women in my family have lived longer than the men, but most of their lives have been compounded by chronic diseases, pain and disability. From migraines to diabetes, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, the list of malaises for the women around me goes on and on.
What makes this enigma even more perplexing is that women are more likely to utilize healthcare, including preventative services. Unfortunately, since the 1920s, our society has largely focused on the latter part of the paradox: trying to expand the life expectancy of men versus addressing women's morbidity.
What is leading women to live lives riddled with pain, illness and disability despite outliving men and utilizing more preventative healthcare? The answer is a complex web of physiological, social, cultural and economic factors.
Before delving into what's getting women "sicker," let's give women's bodies the recognition they deserve. It's true, some men could "die quicker" because they are more likely to engage in armed conflict and risky behaviors, but this isn't the full story—even female orangutans outlive their male counterparts. The truth is that women's bodies are remarkable and resilient and have built-in protective qualities. Even at birth, female infants tend to be stronger and are more likely to survive. Women also have more powerful immune systems. Evidence suggests that women's heart rates increase during the second half of the menstrual cycle, offering a similar benefit to moderate exercise.
What's holding women back are social, cultural and economic factors. Luckily, such determinants are not innate, immovable obstacles. They can be tackled if there's enough societal will to do so.
Here are four places we can start:
Invest in women's health
Women's healthcare is underfunded (and by "women's healthcare" we're talking about more than just bikini medicine). It's almost comedic that there's five times more research devoted to erectile dysfunction, impacting less than 20 percent of men, than premenstrual syndrome—affecting 90 percent of women! If we invest in studying women's health, then we can learn how to better detect, treat and manage diseases in women's bodies.
Quit mansplaining women's health
Women have been fed a narrative about their health and bodies that is often inaccurate and dismisses their own lived experiences. Women's symptoms, including pain, are often ignored and undermanaged—this is especially true for women of color. Endometriosis for example, an extremely painful condition affecting 1 in 10 women, on average takes 10 years to diagnose; you read that right: 10 YEARS. For Black and Hispanic women, getting diagnosed could take twice as long. If we start taking women's experiences seriously, a lot more women could be saved from painful and even fatal diseases.
Pay women more
Income and wealth are major determinants of health. This is bad news for those who face economic inequality, including in the U.S., where women earn 82 cents for every man's dollar. At the rate we're going, it could take over a century to close the gender pay gap. The amount of wealth someone has influences if they can afford healthcare services and treatments, a healthy diet and lifestyle and to live in a neighborhood free from environmental toxins. Women are 35 percent more likely to live in poverty than men; women with disabilities, women of color, and LGBTQ+ women are even more likely to live in poverty. If we start paying women their fair share, then they may have a shot at living healthier lives.
Alleviate women's stress
We're just at the tip of the iceberg with understanding the role stress plays in our health. Although this research is still taking shape, what's abundantly clear is the considerable stress women are under. Women are twice as likely to experience depression, anxiety/panic disorders and PTSD. What's equally troubling is that over 80 percent of millennial women in the U.S. think "everyone talks about how overburdened women are, but no one is actually helping them ease the burden." Employers, partners, our government and even brands can help support women's mental health and alleviate stress on women, in turn improving the longevity and quality of women's lives.
On average, women live 79 years in the U.S. (versus 73 years for men). Imagine how much more women could accomplish in their lives if they spent less time dealing with misdiagnosed and undermanaged disease and disability. By addressing some of the social determinants plaguing women's health, we can help future generations of women live longer and healthier.