We all know men and women are different when it comes to their reproductive abilities. But pioneering doctor, Paula Johnson, says scientists are now beginning to realize that men and women are different right down to their cellular and molecular levels, too. When we overlook this, lumping women’s health together with men’s, women’s health is left to chance. Women are not getting the full benefit of modern science and medicine, and Johnson says this is an equal rights issue.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, Larry Kahill, neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine says that scientists have always assumed that men and women are fundamentally the same except for their reproductive systems, and they are discovering more and more that this is a false assumption. Researchers are beginning to realize that every cell in the human body has a sex and that pervasively and fundamentally, sex matters.
Sex differences between men and women are dangerously understudied. Journalist Lesley Stahl demonstrated this using two common drugs - aspirin and ambien. Stahl reported that a low dosage of aspirin decreases the risk of heart attacks in healthy men but it doesn’t decrease the risk of heart attacks in healthy women. And when maximum levels of ambien are given to both men and women, the amount of drug found in women’s blood levels is 45 percent higher than it is in men’s. As a result, women are prescribed a dosage that is two times higher than the amount they actually need.
Sex differences occur not only with medications, but they occur across diseases, too. Plaque, the waxy substance that builds up and hardens in arteries reducing the flow of oxygen to the heart, is distributed more evenly in women’s arteries than it is in men’s. This means the test used to diagnose coronary heart disease works well to identify the disease in men but it doesn’t work to uncover the disease in most women. And women who have never smoked are three times more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than men who have never smoked. Yet the survival rate for women with lung cancer is better than the survival rate for men with lung cancer.
Sex differences such as these occur across many other medications and diseases, too. These differences are critical to know if we are going to get better at diagnosing and treating diseases. We need to start paying attention to this in order to improve medical care for both men and women.
Kahill says the entire medical system is male-dominated and women have experienced many negative side effects as a result. Stahl reports that 8 out of the 10 prescription drugs that have been withdrawn from the drug market from 1997 to 2001 have been pulled because they posed greater health risks for women than researchers realized. This happened because men are typically the subject of medical research. Researchers view men and women as the same, and it’s easier to study men than it is to study women because men are viewed by the medical community as “women without pesky hormones.”
Kahill says science hasn’t yet caught up with its own discoveries and the way we are going about medical business has to change. Today by law, women must be included in medical research studies along with men but this doesn’t solve the problem. All this does, according to Kahill, is muddy medical results harming both men and women in the process. Kahill says the answer to understanding the path to clear treatment of disease is to go back and review everything we thought we knew using a “sex matters” approach.
Just as we need gender equity at the upper levels of management, we also need gender equity in health care. Imagine the improvements we could make not only to men’s and women’s health but also to the world in general if we begin to eliminate gender inequalities in all areas of our lives.
By ignoring sex differences in medical research, we are harming both men and women. This is, without question, an equal rights issue that needs to be properly addressed.
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Debbie L. Kasman
Principal Newcastle Public School and Author of Lotus of the Heart: Reshaping the Human and Collective Soul