International plea for gender-specific health reform

Michelle Wisbey

3/05/2024 3:26:22 PM

Men suffer more fatal illnesses, while women endure greater health loss, according to a study calling for an urgent overhaul of global policies.

Cartoon of different men and women.
Researchers hope their study will act as a call to action for policymakers to introduce gender-specific health reform.

New research has highlighted the urgent need for decisionmakers worldwide to rollout gender-specific health reform, as the stark differences between men’s and women’s risks are laid bare.
Published in The Lancet Public Health journal, US researchers revealed these differing health needs begin from an early age and the divide widens over time, adding that little has changed to bridge this gap over the past three decades.
It was revealed that overall, males are disproportionately affected by conditions that lead to more premature death, such as COVID-19, road injuries, cardiovascular diseases, and respiratory and liver diseases.
And while women tend to live longer, they endure higher levels of non-fatal conditions leading to health loss, including musculoskeletal conditions, mental health conditions, and headache disorders.
Senior author Dr Luisa Sorio Flor said the study should be a call to action for policymakers to introduce gender-specific health reforms.
‘This report clearly shows that over the past 30 years, global progress on health has been uneven,’ she said.
‘The challenge now is to design, implement, and evaluate sex- and gender-informed ways of preventing and treating the major causes of morbidity and premature mortality from an early age and across diverse populations.’
As part of the study, the research team used data from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2021, modelling the effects of the 20 leading causes of disease in females and males over the age of 10.
This did not include sex-specific health concerns such as gynaecological conditions or prostate cancers.
For females, the largest contributors to health loss globally are lower back pain, depressive disorders, headache disorders, anxiety disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and HIV/AIDS.
Overall, the largest absolute difference in health loss disadvantaging females was lower back pain, with disability-adjusted life year (DALY) rates more than one third higher for females than for males.

Additionally, health loss caused by depressive disorders was a third higher among females, beginning early in life and intensifying with age.  
Co-lead author Gabriela Gil said these causes of health loss in women have historically not received the attention they deserve.
‘It’s clear that women’s healthcare needs to extend well beyond areas that health systems and research funding have prioritised to date, such as sexual and reproductive concerns,’ she said.

‘Conditions that disproportionately impact females in all world regions, such as depressive disorders, are significantly underfunded compared with the massive burden they exert, with only a small proportion of government health expenditure globally earmarked for mental health conditions.’
Health loss was higher in males than females in 13 of the top 20 causes of disease burden, including COVID-19, road injuries, and cardiovascular, respiratory, and liver diseases.
Overall, COVID-19 was the leading cause of health loss in 2021, with males experiencing 45% more health loss from the virus than females.

Ischaemic heart disease had the second largest absolute difference in health loss between females and males, with males experiencing 45% more health loss.
Co-lead author Dr Vedavati Patwardhan said male-specific health policies must work to address and prevent these risks of premature deaths, stressing that progress on health strategies for men has been slow.
‘We need national health plans and strategies to address the health needs of men throughout their lives, including interventions targeting behavioural risks such as alcohol use and smoking that typically begin at a young age,’ she said.
In response to their findings, the authors said these health patterns underscore the need for targeted responses from an early age to prevent gender-specific health conditions.
They are calling for better collection and reporting of sex-specific data globally to paint an accurate picture of where need is greatest.
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