What Health Issues Affect Women Differently Than Men?

Some health issues that are common to both men and women affect women differently. Although the symptoms may be similar, the effects of the condition and the care necessary can differ significantly for women. In addition, some of these conditions might affect women primarily or more severely than men. For example, almost 12% of women in the United States are at risk for developing breast cancer during their lifetime.1 Male breast cancer accounts for less than 1% of existing breast cancer cases.2

Certain health issues and their effects on women are listed below.

Alcohol abuse3

As many as 5.3 million women in the United States abuse alcohol, putting their health, safety, and general well-being at risk. While men are more likely to become dependent on, or addicted to, alcohol than women are throughout their lifetime, the health effects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism (when someone shows signs of addiction to alcohol) are more serious in women. These health effects include an increased risk for breast cancer, heart disease, and fetal alcohol syndrome, in which infants born to mothers who drank during pregnancy suffer brain damage and learning difficulties.

Heart disease4

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. Although heart disease is also the leading cause of death for men in the United States, women are more likely to die following a heart attack than men are. In addition, women are more likely than men are to experience delays in emergency care and to have treatment to control their cholesterol levels.

Mental health

Women are more likely to show signs of depression and anxiety than men are. Depression is the most common women’s mental health problem,5 and more women than men are diagnosed with depression each year.6


Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It causes joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. Arthritis is the leading cause of physical disability in the United States. The condition affects almost 27 million people, and affects more women than men.7

Sexually transmitted diseases/sexually transmitted infections (STDs/STIs)8

The effect of STDs/STIs on women can be more serious than on men. Untreated STDs/STIs cause infertility in at least 24,000 women each year in the United States. STDs/STIs often go untreated in women because symptoms are less obvious than in men or are more likely to be confused with another less serious condition, such as a yeast infection.


According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, stress is on the rise for women. Women are more likely to report having stress, and almost 50% of all women in the survey, compared to 39% of the men, reported that their stress had increased over the past 5 years.9 Stress also has unique effects on women. A recent NICHD study found that stress might reduce a woman’s chance of becoming pregnant.10


More women than men suffer a stroke each year. Although many of the risk factors for stroke are the same for men and women, including a family history of stroke, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, some risk factors are unique to women. These include:

  • Taking birth control pills
  • Being pregnant
  • Using hormone replacement therapy, a combined hormone therapy of progestin and estrogen designed to relieve menopausal symptoms
  • Having frequent migraine headaches
  • Having a thick waist (larger than 35.2 inches), particularly if post-menopausal, and high triglyceride (blood fat) levels

Urinary tract health

Women are more likely than men are to experience urinary tract problems. For example, urinary incontinence affects twice as many women as men12 due to the way the female urinary tract is structured.13

  1. National Cancer Institute. (2010). Probability of breast cancer in American women. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/detection/probability-breast-cancer
  2. National Cancer Institute. (2012). General information about male breast cancer. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/malebreast/patient
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol: a women’s health issue. Retrieved August 3, 2012, from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochurewomen/women.htm
  4. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. (2010). Cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions in women: Recent findings. Retrieved August 3, 2012, from http://www.ahrq.gov/research/findings/factsheets/women/womheart/index.html
  5. World Health Organization. (n.d.). Gender and women’s mental health. Retrieved August 3, 2012, from http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/genderwomen/en/ External Web Site Policy
  6. National Institute of Mental Health. (2012). Women and Depression: Discovering Hope. Retrieved August 22, 2012, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/women-and-depression-discovering-hope/complete-index.shtml
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Arthritis-related statistics. Retrieved August 22, 2012, from http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/data_statistics/arthritis_related_stats.htm
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). 10 ways STDs impact women differently from men. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from http://www.cdc.gov/std/health-disparities/stds-women-042011.pdf (PDF – 222 KB)
  9. American Psychological Association. (n.d.) Gender and stress. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/gender-stress.aspx External Web Site Policy
  10. NIH. (2010). NIH study indicates stress may delay women getting pregnant. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from http://www.nichd.nih.gov/news/releases/Pages/081110-stress-delay-women-getting-pregnant.aspx
  11. National Stroke Association. (n.d.) Women and stroke. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from http://www.stroke.org/understand-stroke/impact-stroke/women-and-stroke External Web Site Policy
  12. National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. (2010). Urinary incontinence in women. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/uiwomen/
  13. National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. (2011). Urinary tract infections in adults. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/utiadult/index.aspx/uti
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Articles from the Womenshealth.com editorial team.