What Explains the Disparities Between Men's and Women's Health?

(November 2008) Worldwide, men have higher mortality and greater disability than women. In nearly every country, they die at younger ages. Why, then, is the international health community so concerned about women’s health disadvantages? An entire chapter is devoted to the topic in the 2nd edition of Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries. A fact sheet based on these findings reveals that just because women live longer, they do not necessarily have better health. Women spend about 15 percent of their lives in unhealthy conditions, compared with about 12 percent for men. Thus, they carry a heavier disease burden than men, and, given their crucial role in the health of their spouses and children, this burden is shared by many.

The female health disadvantage stems from the biological differences between the sexes (women are subject to risks related to pregnancy and childbearing) and gender (the distinct social and cultural roles played by men and women). Gender bias is most apparent and acute in developing countries where there is a strong cultural preference for sons. Women are disadvantaged from birth in many countries, leading to lifelong health problems. Girls receive less nutritious food and less medical care, perpetuating a cycle of poor health. Women who are undernourished during pregnancy are more likely to have low birth-weight babies and undernourished children.

Sex and gender interact to increase women’s disease burden in myriad ways, as explained in “Sex, Gender, and Women’s Health: Why Women Usually Come Last,” one of a series of fact sheets based on the research and publications from the Disease Control Priorities Project.

Mary Mederios Kent is senior demographic editor at PRB.