Who’s Healthier–Men or Women?
By Nicki Rubin
Several months ago, my husband, Jordan, and I hosted a women-only Weekend of Wellness conference in Atlanta. One of the topics that got batted around was the question of who’s healthier—men or women?
It’s not my intention to pit one gender against another, but it’s an intriguing question that influences medical insurance premiums and public policy debate. From my vantage point, I tend to believe that it’s too difficult to say whether men are healthier than women—or vice versa—because you’re comparing apples to oranges.
Maybe when boys are younger, they are more athletically-minded than girls and participate in more calorie-burning activities, which makes them appear healthier. But when girls get older, they become very concerned about their appearance, which prompts them to pay attention to their weight, what they eat, and how much they exercise.
In my own experience as a mother, I’ve discovered that something has to give when the demands of motherhood take precedence. A mom will overlook her own health before neglecting her children’s care. Moms are responsible not only for raising demanding children, who are dependent on her for both emotional nurturing and nutritional sustenance, but in many households have to look after husbands, aging parents, and in-laws. I’m sure that what I am describing is not new to you. The bulk of both child rearing and caring for the immediate and extended family have fallen squarely on the shoulders of women since the beginning of time, although there are certainly exceptions.
When I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, some sociologists argued that there were no essential differences between the sexes, and the patriarchal and matriarchal roles observed in society were due to conditioning. I remember neighbor kids whose parents were careful not to let their boys go wild with “Cowboy and Indians,” or their girls to play house with their Barbie dolls. But as social scientists unearthed evidence dispelling the idea that men and women were essentially the same underneath the obvious physical differences, the social pendulum began swinging the other way. These days, the prevailing conventional wisdom is that, well, women are different from men. And just as males and females have significant biological and physiological differences, there are also noteworthy distinctions in the area of health.
Women possess only two-thirds of the overall physical strength of men, but a woman’s abdominal muscles contain just as much strength as a male’s, no doubt due to a woman’s biological need for strong abdominal muscles for childbirth.
Additionally, according to the Mayo Clinic:
Women, on average, have 11 percent more body fat and 8 percent less muscle mass than men
Men tend to be faster than women during aerobic events due to their greater muscle strength and the mechanical advantage of longer arms and legs.
Women, on the other hand, tend to have greater endurance, partly due to reliance on fat metabolism, during long events.
Though women may say “Ouch!” before men do, they tolerate pain better than men.
Women also have larger stomachs, kidneys, livers, and appendixes. Their thyroid glands are also generally larger and more active, usually enlarging during both menstruation and pregnancy. This makes them more prone to developing goiters and more vulnerable in cold weather. It is also associated with smooth skin.
A woman’s blood contains 20 percent fewer red blood cells than a male’s, which means her blood contains more water. Since blood carries oxygen to the body’s cells, fewer red blood cells means less oxygen is made available: women tire more easily. Finally, a woman’s heart beats more rapidly (eighty beats per minute versus seventy-two for men), but she has much less tendency to develop high blood pressure.
Some say women are healthier than men because they live longer—5.3 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The so-called “gender gap” between male and female life expectancy has been narrowing since the peak gap of 7.8 years last recorded in 1979. The reason for the gap remains a mystery, but I wonder if the gap is narrowing because of the millions of career-minded women who entered the workforce in the 1970s and ’80s. Since men have a shorter lifespan presumably because they work at high-pressure jobs and stress themselves out of a few years, I would think that being a mom and holding down a full-time job outside the home could also cut off some years.
And speaking of cutting off some years…next week we will take a look at what conditions are most likely to cut a woman’s life short.
You might be surprised to know that research shows that more women than men die from the nation’s number-one killer—cardiovascular disease—each year. If you’re keeping score, women have a 53 to 47 percent edge. According to the American Heart Association, the number of deaths from heart disease among females has exceeded those of males since 1984.
Furthermore, one in three women has some form of cardiovascular disease, yet only 13 percent of women are aware that heart disease is a major threat to their lives. They think that only men keel over, clutching their chests as everything fades to black during a fatal heart attack. The fact is, women account for nearly half of all deaths from heart attacks.
When it comes to the second leading cause of death—cancer—a slightly higher percentage of men than women go to the grave each year. The most common form of cancer deaths among women is lung cancer, not breast cancer, as is often believed. Nearly twice the number of women perish annually from lung cancer as compared to breast cancer (74,000 to 40,000), yet we do not see pink ribbons or 10K walks for lung cancer. And what gets me is that no one is talking about how 60 percent of all cancers in women can be linked to dietary and lifestyle factors.
In addition, women are twice as likely as men to die from both stroke and Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive, degenerative brain disease that starts as slight memory loss and degenerates into irreversible mental impairment. And though diabetes—which is the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure, limb amputations, and heart disease—preys slightly more on men than women, 9 percent of women over the age of 20 have diabetes, and one-third of them don’t even know it, according to the American Diabetes Association.
At the end of the day, the debate about who’s healthier—men or women—isn’t important because it can never be resolved. What’s more important is what you are doing about your health and the health of family members around you.
Speaking Into Your Spouse’s Good Health
We all know that nagging can be irritating, but some friendly, good-natured input from spouse to spouse can help him or her live longer and enjoy better health. That’s the thesis of a book, The Case for Marriage, written by University of Chicago researcher Linda Waite, and Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. The authors, like a growing number of scholars, have been intrigued by mounting scientific evidence that women and (particularly) men live longer and enjoy better health when they are married. Waite believes there are a number of reasons for this, but one of her explanations is sure to get under the skin of every red-blooded American male.
“Marriage provides individuals—and especially men—with someone who monitors their health and health-related behaviors and who encourages self-regulation,” said Linda Waite, adding that married men can benefit from “someone who nags them.” Wives have a way of getting husbands to give up what we call “stupid bachelor tricks,” such as driving fast, drinking in bars, and getting into fights. They can, at the same time, participate in improving their husband’s health by cooking healthier meals—and anything is healthier than what passes for many young bachelors’ diets. They can also encourage their men to get regular sleep and to visit their doctors for annual exams.
While most men can see the benefits of having a wife who “reminds” them to get a regular checkup or eat a high-fiber diet, the last thing most men want is for some expert to legitimize the kind of merciless hounding normally associated with the term “nagging.” In her defense, Waite’s chief aim isn’t to encourage women to pester their husbands mercilessly. Instead, she wants to raise public awareness of research showing that a man’s life expectancy is more adversely affected by being unmarried than by being poor, overweight, or having heart disease. Waite thinks such findings need the same sort of attention given to cigarette smoking and lack of exercise.
I think it’s a point well-taken.