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New research reveals common beliefs about gender differences in health


Men estimate men’s risks of common disorders higher than women do, and vice versa

New research from University of Glasgow researchers on lay perceptions about gender differences in health reveals that both men and women believe health risks are higher for their own sex than for the opposite sex. But, it also shows that males think that men are fitter and females think women are more athletic.

Professor Sally Macintyre in the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow analysed responses from 466 women and 353 men, aged 25, 45, and 65, to a questionnaire that asked whether they thought men or women (or both equally) were more likely to have heart disease, cancer, mental illness and accidents, to be fit and to live longer.

The research provides insights about gender identity and difference. They found that each gender tends to think risks are higher for their own sex than for the other gender. Previous studies suggest that lay people and health professionals operate on stereotypes about the gender patterning of certain types of health problem and health behaviour. For example, coronary heart disease tends to be perceived as a ’male disease’ even though it is the leading cause of mortality amongst women in the UK. (One study found that 30 year old women with chest pain were much less likely than 30 year old men to be given a cardiac diagnosis, much more likely to be given a psychiatric diagnosis, and around seven times more likely to be considered not to need medical treatment).

The University of Glasgow study reveals that when a respondent considered one sex more at risk than the other, men were thought more likely to have accidents and women to have cancer and mental illness. Accidents: 48 per cent of males compared to 37 per cent of females said men were more likely to have accidents; 58 per cent of females chose ’both’, compared to 50 per cent of males.

Cancer: around two thirds of both sexes said they believed men and women were ’equally likely’ to experience cancer; 12 per cent of males compared to 3 per cent of females said that men were more likely to have cancer, and 30 per cent of females compared with 24 per cent of males said that women were.

  • Fitness: there was a trend towards males thinking that men were fitter and females thinking women were.
  • Heart disease: 79 per cent of males and 59 per cent of females said men were more likely to get heart disease; 19 per cent more females than males chose ’both equally’.
  • Longevity: 87.5 per cent of all respondents said women lived longer.
  • Mental illness: 31 per cent of females compared to 18 per cent males believed women were more likely to suffer from mental illness, and 72 per cent of males compared with 61 per cent of females said ’both equally’.

Professor Macintyre, from the University of Glasgow, said: "In general these lay perceptions mirror professions perceptions. However, what is unexpected is that when there was a gender difference in attribution of relative likelihood, respondents tended to perceive the risks as higher for their own sex than for the opposite sex. This tendency was also evident in the one condition – fitness – posed in positive terms.

"Previous studies on personal risk assessments suggest a tendency to underestimate one’s own risk of illness compared to one’s peers – this is often referred to as optimism bias. Our findings suggest in contrast that what may be going on in response to these type of questions is neither an optimistic nor negative bias for one’s own sex, but rather a bias towards thinking any health experience, whether positive or negative, is more probable for one’s own sex than the opposite sex thinks."

Jenny Murray | EurekAlert!
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