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Closing the gender gap

Like it or not, women are still the weaker sex when it comes to some aspects of health. As a woman, you’re more likely to develop certain chronic diseases than a man—some of which will affect you more severely than they will men.

What makes women more susceptible to certain health problems? Read on to learn how your gender influences your wellness—and what you can do to ensure a healthier equality between the sexes.

Heart disease

Despite the perception that heart disease is a man’s disease, it kills almost as many American women as men every year. By age 45, an average woman’s total cholesterol is higher than the average man’s cholesterol. As a woman ages, her lipid levels change, increasing her risk for atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries). Studies show that high triglyceride levels and low levels of HDL, or good, cholesterol make women even more susceptible to heart problems or stroke than they do men.

What’s more, nearly twice as many women as men die within a year of a heart attack. Certain procedures to open blocked arteries are more effective in men than women. And because women’s heart attack symptoms are different than men’s, women are more apt to be misdiagnosed and not get lifesaving treatment. Also, women are more likely than men to have a second heart attack within a year of their first.


Women account for more than half of annual strokes and stroke deaths. Women ages 65 and older are more likely than men the same age to develop high blood pressure, which, left unchecked, can lead to debilitating or fatal strokes. Signs of stroke vary, too—men are more likely to report imbalance and weakness, while more women report “nontraditional” symptoms such as pain and changes in levels of consciousness. Unless women and medical personnel recognize these symptoms, women may not get the timely treatment they need.


Just by being female, you’re prone to certain cancers—those of the breast, endometrium and ovaries, top cancer killers of women. Other cancers that kill many American women, as well as men, are lung, colorectal and pancreatic cancers and melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.


Women make up almost half of Americans diagnosed with diabetes. Women with the disease have a greater risk of high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease than men with diabetes have. They’re also less likely than men with diabetes to survive a heart attack.

Mental health

Women have more than double the rates of depression than men do and are more likely to develop alcohol problems as a result. Because women’s brains make less of the hormone serotonin, a mood-stabilizing brain chemical, women may be more susceptible to depression. Also, hormonal fluctuations coupled with stressors such as relationship problems or money troubles or a history of abuse make women more vulnerable to depression. Women are also more likely to develop anxiety and panic disorders.


About 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, or porous, fragile bones. Four in five of them are women, whose risk for the disease increases after menopause when levels of bone-protective estrogen decline. With an increased risk for fractures, women are more likely to be among the 50 percent of people who lose their independence following a hip fracture.

But that’s not all. Women are more likely than men to develop certain debilitating disorders such as lupus, fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. They have a greater risk than men do of developing Alzheimer’s disease (partly because women live longer). And after age 50, more women than men develop osteoarthritis, the leading cause of disability among U.S. adults. Women also report pain more often than men do, and it tends to be more persistent and severe.

Improve your odds

While it seems that these gender differences weigh against you, lifestyle changes and other disease-fighting steps are effective at neutralizing your risks. You can enhance your chances for enjoying optimal health by:

  1. Making lifestyle changes.

    • Don’t smoke—if you do, quit.
    • Eat a balanced diet, including lots of antioxidant-rich vegetables, fruits and whole grains such as brown rice, oatmeal and whole wheat.
    • Exercise regularly for a healthier heart and blood vessels. You’ll also boost your emotional health; ward off diabetes; and strengthen your muscles, joints and bones, helping to stave off arthritis pain and osteoarthritis.
    • Lose excess pounds. Even losing 10 percent of your weight can lower your disease risks and make you feel better about yourself.

  2. Getting regular screenings.

    • Ask your healthcare providers how often you need important health screenings, such as blood pressure and cholesterol tests, mammograms, bone density scans and colorectal cancer screenings.
    • Find out what you can do to lower your disease risks.

  3. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of diseases.

    • Learn the warning signs of illnesses for which you may be at risk—for example, signs of Alzheimer’s disease if one of your parents had it.
    • Report all unusual symptoms or pain.

The good news—women live longer than men, a testament to our strength and our ability to survive. You can help make those years more enjoyable by taking the right steps today.