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Sex-and-Gender Differences in COVID-19 Illustrate the Need to Accelerate Research on the Health of Women

June 21, 2021
by Ke'ala Akau

On an endlessly rainy March evening, as I stared at a screen for the fifth hour of back-to-back remote seminars, a dull pain drummed my temples, and my hip flexors ached in a once-comfortable chair. A wave of anxious energy quickly consumed me as my mind returned to questions about whether I was being productive enough, whether my family back home was safe and healthy, and when the pandemic would finally end.

As a college student, I have seen the effects of the pandemic’s physical and emotional toll manifest clearly in the experiences of my friends, classmates, and professors. As a fellow with Women’s Health Research at Yale, I have learned that the impact may be felt more by women.

In an analysis published by the Kaiser Family Foundation in April, nearly 70 percent of women ages 18-29 reported that feelings of worry or stress related to the pandemic have had a negative impact on their mental health, compared with 50 percent of men in the same age group. Similarly, 55 percent of women of all ages reported a negative impact on their mental health, compared to the 38 percent of all men who reported a negative impact.

In my work researching and writing articles with WHRY on the health of women, I have also discovered illustrations of how various aspects of health can be linked, and that these links can show sex-and-gender differences. For example, I have written about how women’s heart health, which has historically been under-emphasized, is related to mental health. Evidence suggests chronic mental disorders such as depression and anxiety may increase cardiovascular risk factors in both men and women. However, as the pandemic aggravated already existing mental health challenges, which are generally more prevalent in women, the connection it may have on heart health is especially significant.

This is why the work that WHRY does to support research in sex-and-gender differences is so important — it shows where we must focus to reduce the increased risk of certain disorders in women, but it also identifies where we must address health problems found in men, thus working to improve the health of everyone.

In taking on issues directly related to COVID-19, WHRY also directly supported research that has been instrumental in understanding the impact of sex-and-gender differences resulting from the pandemic. Dr. Akiko Iwasaki illuminated how sex differences in immune response to COVID-19 can affect patient outcomes, while Drs. Sarah Lowe and Robert Pietrzak are examining how women and men who are health care providers may have different ways of showing psychological resilience.

We must accelerate this type of work across all health conditions that affect women and forge a better path where we examine sex-and-gender differences to benefit everyone.

Thanks in large part to vaccines, we will soon be free from constant Zoom meetings and the immediate threats of COVID-19. This pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges. Let’s use this opportunity to make science better for everyone.

Read more posts from our student blog: “Why Didn’t I Know This?”

Submitted by Rick Harrison on June 10, 2021