It is finally becoming more acknowledged that males and females—and even self-identified women and men—experience the effects of certain medical conditions and treatments differently.
For example, women typically experience different symptoms of heart attack than men do. For women, there is usually less pain in the chest, and more pain experienced in the arm.
Since it wasn’t recognized until relatively recently that heart attacks looked different in women, women often missed out on critical care that could have saved their lives. And in spite of the fact that science is waking up to the fact that sex and gender influence how people react to different diseases and medical treatments, little is being done to appropriately study those differences.
Take research into the mental health field, for example. Women are still severely underrepresented in scientific studies on anxiety and depression. Although research has suggested that women are two-and-a-half times more likely to suffer from anxiety than men, less than 45% of the anxiety-related studies conducted on animals use any female test subjects, meaning that there is no data on how certain treatments affect women.
Depression also impacts women more frequently, but, just like with anxiety, there is more limited research on how depression impacts female brains as compared to male brains.
As a woman who struggles with both anxiety and depression, it is disconcerting to me that the medical field is not as interested in examining the differences in how depression and anxiety (and other mental health issues) affect women and men so differently. Excluding women from the examination of mental health symptoms and treatments is dangerous.
Overall, studies are still being conducted on men or male research subjects. Irving Zucker of UC Berkeley looked at 10 different fields of study and found that in eight of those fields, male test subjects were overwhelmingly favored to their female counterparts. And just because a treatment of discovery works on male subjects, that doesn’t always mean that success will transfer over onto female patients.
Of 10 drugs recently recalled for safety warnings, a majority of those caused worse side effects in women than in men.
“For just about everything in medical science, we’re still very male-focused. Our basic understanding is missing a key ingredient, and that is the sex difference,” says Marcia Stefanick of Stanford University.
But scientists are not just failing to recognize that sex characteristic play an important role in determining health outcomes, but that gender identity can also be influential. As people are becoming more aware that gender is more based on self-identification based on a set of certain characteristics, usually determined by culture and societal norms, more research needs to be conducted on how those self-identifications influence physical and mental health.
Dr. Janine Clayton of the National Institutes of Health notes that, “Both sex and gender influence human health and disease. It is increasingly clear that it is both an ethical and scientific imperative to conduct research and report on the results for both men and women.”
A 2016 study showed that recovery from acute coronary syndrome, a blood flow blockage to the heart, was not solely dependent on biological sex characteristics, but also on the performance of socially defined gender roles. Those who exhibited more feminine traits, like responsibility to housekeeping, were more likely to suffer another heart problem or even die within the following year, as compared to the research subjects who demonstrated more traditionally masculine behaviors.
Therefore, excluding discussions on gender differences in medicine might actually prove deadly for feminine people of all gender expressions and identities.
It is important for the medical community to start opening up more trials and conducting more research on sex and gender differences. The inclusion of women in these trials might actually have the potential to save lives and radically transform the way that women receive necessary health care treatments.
To deny women the health care access they deserve is a disgrace.
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