Most people do not think about their health or issues revolving around their health until they are actually ill or people think that their health is only affected by biological factors. However, our health should be a focus in our lives because our daily life has an affect on our health. Illness does not only have biological causes but is also influenced by social factors such as the socially imposed roles of gender and socioeconomic differences.
Before the affect of gender on health can be discussed, the difference between gender and sex must first defined. Sex refers to actual physiological and hormonal differences between men and women; gender refers to the differences that are imposed by society. Statistics have shown that women have higher rates of morbidity but men have shorter life spans. This means that although women live longer than men, those years are not healthy years but rather are filled with illness. This cannot be completely explained by biological causes but the affect of social factors must be taken into account.
There are two types of gender difference disease: completely biological and biological amplified by social. Examples of completely biological diseases would include ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, breast cancer, and cervical cancer for women and prostrate cancer and testicular cancer for men. These diseases can only be had by members of a certain sex due to specific biological factors such as only women having ovaries therefore are able to have ovarian cancer whereas men have no ovaries and cannot get ovarian cancer. The other class of gender difference diseases is disease with biological causes but amplified by social factors. Examples of this can include various psychological and biological stress related diseases.
The societal demands placed upon women to be homemakers and full time employees provide a source of stress for women that can manifest itself in the form of a physical illness or a psychological disorder. Women have significantly higher rates than men of psychological distress and depression. (Weiss and Lonnquist 98) The effect of this this increased distress may lead to depressed immune function which could factor into the higher morbidity of women. (Rieker and Bird 104)
The pressure that most men feel to be the primary providers of their homes can have an adverse affect upon their health. When confronted with illness, men will underestimate the severity of their illness and avoid seeking health care so that they would not be removed from the work force and be put in a position not to be able to provide for their families. Overall, men use fewer health care services and do not document their symptoms as well as women. This puts men at a disadvantage when they do seek health care treatment.
Socioeconomic differences also affect health. Those of higher socioeconomic status are often healthier than their low socioeconomic status counterparts and on average have a higher life expectancy by about seven years. (Weiss and Lonnquist 42) This is due to differences in exposure to health risks and stress.
Those of lower socioeconomic status suffer from higher exposure to health risks as compared to the general population. Poor housing and overcrowding can increase stress levels can thereby increase risk of myocardial infarction and stroke. Pollution, dust, smoke, and roach eggs have been linked to the development of chronic asthma in children who grew up in such environments. Such poor living conditions often have poor facilities such as outdated plumbing systems which can increase the amount of contaminants in the water and lead paint which can cause lead poisoning especially in small children. Those of a higher socioeconomic status have the money so that they can move out of urban areas away from pollution.
The stress of everyday life can also affect health. Those of a lower socioeconomic status have higher levels of stress due to job instability and living conditions. This is a part of the exposure hypothesis which states that “lower-class people are exposed to more stressful life experiences than those in the middle or upper classes, and that higher rates of distress are a logical result of this exposure.” (Weiss and Lonnquist 97) Because of these higher levels of distress, those in a lower socioeconomic status have higher incidences of diseases aggravated by stress such as cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. This added stress also leads to negative health behaviors such as smoking, alcohol abuse, and drug abuse all of which have adverse affects on health.
These various stressors of everyday life caused by gender differences and differences in socioeconomic status can have a more profound affect than they seem
Rieker, Patricia P. and Chloe E. Bird. “Sociological Explanations of Gender Differences In Mental and Physical Health.” Handbook of Medical Sociology. Ed. Chloe E. Bird, et al. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice, 2000. 98-113.
Weiss, Gregory L. and Lynne E. Lonnquist. The Sociology of Health, Healing, and Illness. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice, 2000.