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The Differences that Matter

January 02, 2020
by Anjali Walia, WHRY Fellow

In September, I had the opportunity to meet many of the first women admitted to Yale College during the 50th Anniversary of Coeducation at Yale Commemorative Weekend. My favorite part of the weekend, one of the many yearlong events honoring this milestone, was the semicentennial celebration of the founding of the Yale Women’s Center, where I was amazed by the courage and spirit of its founders. I heard them speak about the false assumptions that held women back during their college years and are still, to some extent, around to this day. False assumptions that women are less confident, competent, ambitious, and qualified than men. It got me thinking about the irony of focusing on fabricated sex and gender differences for so long, while often neglecting the ones that actually matter.

The fact is, real sex-and-gender differences do exist and have important effects on how we live our daily lives. And it is why Women’s Health Research at Yale is transforming science and medical practice to address these differences and improve lives.

For example, WHRY continues to highlight how women have to be much more careful about their drinking habits, as women have higher blood alcohol concentrations and greater degrees of impairment after consuming the same amount of alcohol as men. Due to differences in the way women and men metabolize alcohol, women are more vulnerable to addiction as well as alcohol-induced brain and liver damage. I was shocked that we are not generally taught this. This lack of attention to sex and gender hinders medical advancement, perpetuating the “one size fits all” myth in place of evidence-based practice.

As much as I wish it were the case, we do not live in a world where health risks are distributed equally. Until that changes, we should try our best to minimize the consequences of these differences. Spreading awareness of sex-and-gender differences can help narrow the gap in health outcomes. For example, further research into sex-and-gender differences in depressive disorders, pioneered by WHRY Director Carolyn M. Mazure, Ph.D., can lead to the development of more efficacious therapies for both women and men. Being aware that women are more likely to experience atypical symptoms during a heart attack — and WHRY-funded efforts to better categorize and treat these differences — can improve outcomes in life-or-death situations.

Remaining cognizant of sex-and-gender differences in health has allowed me to take better care of myself. I know that as a woman, I am four times more likely to develop osteoporosis, which is why I exercise regularly to maintain core strength and balance and make sure my diet includes adequate amounts of calcium. I owe this knowledge to centers like WHRY and research aimed at discerning sex disparities in bone health — research that if conducted earlier, could have informed preventive measures and altered today’s rates of devastating bone diseases.

So, instead of sustaining myths like women having fewer abilities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields than men, let’s talk about why women are more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Let’s build on WHRY-funded work uncovering why the risk of a more deadly type of colon cancer is greater in women. Let’s see what more we can do about the fact that it is harder for women to stop smoking than men. There are countless variations in how our bodies work, waiting to be discovered and used to improve our well-being. Let’s focus on the differences that actually matter.

Submitted by Rick Harrison on December 10, 2019