Personal perception of health varies among men and women

Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - 4:37pm

Men and women self-rate their health differently — and this might explain in part why women live longer — according to a recent University of Michigan study.

The study found women rate themselves as less healthy more often than men, even though women tend to live longer. The study, therefore, could predict mortality better in men who viewed themselves as extremely healthy, perhaps because they were more likely not to seek medical help.

Initially designed to compare health between Black and white people, the study followed 1,500 adults ages 66 and older for three years between 2001 and 2004 and discovered that gender differences play a large role in subjectively predicting risk of mortality later in life.

“Regardless of the domain, women perceive their health being poorer — if it is mental health, if it quality of life, if it is anxiety or depression, sleep, self-rated health — but they live longer,” said Shervin Assari, the School of Public Health psychiatric research investigator who conducted the study. “So there is a paradox that they say ‘I’m not as good’ but they live longer.”

Men naturally perceive risk differently than women with regard to health issues, Assari said.

“The brain is designed in a way to protect men from perception of risk,” Assari said.

Assari attributed much of his findings not only to evolutionary tendencies but also to personality differences between men and women — something that similar studies in Europe and Canada have revealed as well.

“Being a woman is associated with awareness of symptoms, awareness of their body and also perception of risk,” Assari said. “Regardless of the domain of risk, if it is nuclear bombing, if it is a new political change or if it is a reactor in their city or anything, women perceive the same risk as higher.”

Psychology Prof. Robin Edelstein, who was not involved in the study but investigates individual personality differences related to hormones, said she would support the findings of the study, noting that women are generally more conscientious, which could lead to them seeking out medical care more often. Women also tend to be higher in neuroticism, which could correlate to them worrying about other factors in addition to their health.

“Men are probably underreporting symptoms for self-presentation reasons,” Edelstein said. “For men there’s this idea that they want to report they are healthier than they really are.”

Edelstein added that she doesn’t believe these differences are reflected in structures of the brain.

“I would say it’s probably about how men and women are socialized,” Edelstein said. “Men are probably socialized to not complain about their health and to be tough and masculine.”

Ultimately, Assari said his research serves multiple purposes. First, when patients report poor health, it is proven to likely predict mortality, so their concerns should be taken into account. Additionally, research that considers self-rated health as a screening tool for eligibility for certain services should be aware of the predictor’s health implications as well.

He also cited the significance of this data in the world of precision medicine — a customized approach to treating illnesses and developing individual treatment plans based on understanding a patient’s full medical history and physical state.

“There is a new increasing interest about precision medicine that indicators of health should be differently used for differing individuals, and treatments should be tailored based on that person,” Assari said. “These types of works can contribute to precision medicine because they say, if you are a member of this group here, men, that single item is more serious.”