Men vs. Women: Whose Health Is Better?

People Tend to Think the Other Sex Is Healthier

From the WebMD Archives

April 22, 2005 -- Men and women tend to see their sex's health differently, say Scottish researchers.

They polled Scottish men and women about heart disease, cancer, mental illness, accidents, and fitness. The point was to gauge participants' health beliefs.

In virtually every category, there was some disagreement between the sexes. In those cases, both men and women said their sex was more likely to experience the condition in question.

The exception: longevity. Both groups agreed that women generally outlive men.

"Each gender tends to think it is more likely to experience a range of conditions than the other gender thinks (with the exception of longevity)," says the study, which appears in April's International Journal of Epidemiology.

Pattern of Health Beliefs

The findings come from a questionnaire mailed to 466 women and 353 men in two towns in western Scotland. They were asked about the likelihood of the conditions for men and women in general, not their own personal risk.

The study wasn't huge or very diverse, but it may offer some hints about the health beliefs of men and women.

At first glance, men and women seemed to hold similar beliefs.

"The majority of respondents said that men and women were equally likely to have accidents, cancer, mental illness, and to be fitter, and that men were more likely to get heart disease and women to live longer," write the researchers, who included Sally Macintyre, PhD, director of the University of Glasgow's social and public health sciences unit.

"When one sex was considered more at risk than the other, men were thought more likely to have accidents and women to have cancer and mental illness," they continue.

However, a closer look at the data showed several splits between the sexes.

Gender: The Fault Line for Health Beliefs?

Opinions were significantly different between men and women about which sex is more likely to have accidents, cancer, heart disease, and mental illness.

  • Accidents: 48% of the men polled said men are more likely to have accidents. That belief was also expressed by 37% of the women. However, 58% of the women said both sexes were equally likely to have accidents, compared with half of the men.
  • Cancer: About two-thirds of participants said both sexes were equally likely to get cancer. But 12% of men said men were more likely to get cancer, compared with 3% of women who thought that. In turn, more women (30%) than men (24%) said women are more likely to have cancer.

    The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 710,000 men will develop cancer in 2005 compared with just over 660,000 women.

  • Heart Disease: The majority of both groups said men were more likely to develop heart disease. That included 79% of men and 59% of women. The group that said both sexes were equally likely to develop heart disease included 19% more women than men, says the study.

    Before the age of 50, men are more likely to get heart disease. But after menopause the risk of heart disease steadily climbs in women.

  • Fitness: There was a trend for each sex to think it was fitter than the other.
  • Mental illness: Mental illness was more likely among women, said 31% of women and 18% of men. Among men, 72% said mental illness was equally likely among both sexes, compared with 61% of women.

The most common mental illnesses are anxiety and depression, which are thought to be more common among women. However, some of the difference may be that men are less likely to seek treatment.


Who's Right?

Overall responses were generally in line with population-based studies, but the gender gaps need further explanation, write the researchers.

"Previous studies on personal risk assessments suggest a tendency to underestimate one's own risk of illness compared to one's peers," says Mcintyre in a news release.

She says a possible explanation may be "a bias towards thinking any health experience, whether positive or negative, is more probable for one's own sex than the opposite sex thinks."

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on April 22, 2005


SOURCES: Macintyre, S. International Journal of Epidemiology, April 2005; vol 34: pp 461-466. News release, University of Glasgow.

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