Men and women get sick in different ways, however little is known about these differences because medical research over the last 40 years has focused almost entirely on male patients, an international expert on gender and health has claimed.
According to Prof Giovannella Baggio of Padua University Hospital in Italy, researchers still know little about gender-specific differences in various illnesses, particularly in relation to symptoms, the influence of psychological factors and treatment. As a result, developing gender-specific medicine is a big challenge for the future.
Writing in the journal, Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine, Prof Baggio and her team looked at five main areas - heart disease, cancer, diseases of the liver, osteoporosis and pharmacology.
In relation to heart health, Prof Baggio noted that women often display different symptoms, for example, when suffering a heart attack. While men often suffer pain in their chest and left arm, women are more likely to suffer lower abdominal pain and nausea.
However, despite the fact that heart attacks tend to be more severe in women, those who complain of these non-specific symptoms ‘often do not receive the necessary examination procedures, such as an ECG'.
In relation to cancer, Prof Baggio refers specifically to cancer of the colon, also known as bowel cancer. This is the second most common cancer diagnosed in men and women, however women tend to develop the disease later than men. Furthermore, colon cancer tumours usually have a different location in women, although they do tend to respond more positively to certain chemical treatments.
In terms of diseases of the liver, Prof Baggio notes that one disease, for example, primary biliary cirrhosis, mainly affects women as a result of their genes and different hormone levels.
Osteoporosis meanwhile is often described as a ‘woman's disease' because more women develop it. Prof Baggio pointed out that as a result, many men with the condition may be overlooked and the death rate among men who suffer osteoporosis-related fractures is higher than among women.
In relation to pharmacology, Prof Baggio said that drugs, such as aspirin, can work differently in men and women as a result of different body types, different absorption rates and different hormonal levels.
She insisted that if drugs are to be administered safely and effectively, ‘the dosage and duration of treatment must take the patient's gender into account'.
Prof Baggio added that more studies on gender differences are needed ‘in order to eliminate fundamental inequalities between men and women in the treatment of disease'.