Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” asks a harassed Harrison Ford, playing Professor Henry Higgins in the film adaptation of Pygmalion. Perhaps it’s because she is smart enough to know being a woman will help her live longer.
Ask any physician and he’ll tell you it’s men who need to be more like women. By that they don’t mean men should wallow in their feminine side and go for pink, pumps and push-ups (clothing, not exercise). What they want is men should stop pretending they are stronger, smarter and fitter and get medical attention at the first signs of aches and creaking bones.
Statistics comparing the health of the two genders show that women live longer and are also less prone to diseases. All the major non-infectious causes of death — heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lung disease and accidents — kill more men than women everywhere around the world.
Of course, there are some biological reasons for there being more sick men around than women. First there is chromosomes -up (XY makes men more prone to inherited diseases), wrong hormones (the female hormone estrogen protect women against heart disease and stroke; while the male hormone testosterone lowers immunity), lipid profile (women have higher levels of heart-protecting good cholesterol) and metabolism (men have more abdominal fat, which ups heart and diabetes risk).
The other reason is the John Wayne Syndrome, which makes a virtue of suffering in silence while watching your guts being ripped out.
Most men are born with a strong aversion to doctors. Women, on the other hand, are far more conscientious about health, probably because they rear children and often function as the first doctor-on-call on more than a few occasions. When they can afford it, women are more diligent about check-ups and follow-ups, not just of themselves but also the family.
Even when men do visit their doctors, they tend to play down symptoms and ignore medical advice. All my male colleagues claim they suffer from extreme work-related stress even when they appear to be doing a lot less than their women colleagues. Any query about the mysterious stressor, of course, remains unanswered as the situation is always too complex for mere women to fathom.
This, when several studies show women suffer a lot for more stress. For one, bad relationships and marriages — marked by arguments, angry outbursts and resentment -- are harder on a women’s health than men. In June this year, a US study reported that women in strained marriages are more likely to have high blood pressure, obesity and metabolic disorders called Syndrome X — abdominal fat, high blood sugar, high bad cholesterol, low good cholesterol, high triglycerides (a type of bad blood fat) — that raise heart disease, stroke and diabetes risks. The study found that while bad relationships depressed men, it did not affect their physical health.
Yet, women live longer than men the world over. Even in India, where families are twice as likely to spend on medical treatment for a man who earns than a woman, a woman’s life expectancy is 67.17 years, while that for men is 65.13 years. This, when India has among the highest rate of death at childbirth — 254 women die per one lakh live birth — each year.
The gap is wider in countries with economic parity between genders. In the US, the difference is life expectancy is over 5 years: a woman has a life expectancy of 80.4 years as compared to 75.2 years for men.
A major reason for women living longer is less risky behaviour — such as aggression and lower alcohol, drug and tobacco use — and stronger social and family support. This, say public health experts, helps them reach out for support before they have both feet in their graves. Quite literally.