For many years, scientists thought that when it comes to diabetes, all people are created equal. Increasingly, though, there is a recognition that a variety of illnesses — from heart attacks to diabetes to mental health disorders — affect men and women differently. At its basic level, diabetes is an endocrine disorder. This means that it affects the body’s hormonal system. Diabetes occurs when the pancreas does not produce the hormone insulin (as in Type 1 diabetes) or cells gradually become resistant to insulin (in Type 2 diabetes).
Women and men have differences in their endocrine systems. Meaning, they may manifest diabetes differently. For example, women have higher estrogen levels, while men have higher testosterone levels. Women’s different endocrine makeup also causes them to have a different fat distribution than men. Furthermore, sociocultural factors such as nutrition, social support and health care disparities may affect women’s ability to manage their condition.
Effects of Diabetes: Women Vs. Men
The underlying process of blood sugar dysregulation looks similar in women and men, yet these groups have very different health outcomes. Perhaps most alarming is that from 1971 to 2000, death rates in women with diabetes compared to healthy women more than doubled. During the same time, death rates of men with diabetes declined. This suggests that there is a difference in how we diagnose and manage diabetes in women. Consider the following examples of ways in which diabetes differs in men and women.
Women Manifest Different Diabetes Symptoms
Core symptoms of diabetes include hunger, fatigue, thirst, dry mouth, itchy skin and greater frequency of urination. Other diabetes symptoms unique to women include:
- Vaginal or oral yeast infections
- Urinary tract infections
- Sexual dysfunction, including tingling in the vaginal area or loss of desire
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which may lead to acne, irregular periods, depression and weight gain
Women Are Diagnosed at a Different Rate Than Men
In general, men are diagnosed with diabetes three to four years earlier, and at a lower body weight compared to women. This points to health care disparities that negatively affect women. To counteract this, go to the doctor for annual physicals or if you think you may have diabetes symptoms. Women who had gestational diabetes during pregnancy are at particularly high risk for developing Type 2 diabetes later in life.
Women’s Hormones May Affect Blood Sugar Levels
Levels of certain hormones fluctuate depending on the stage of your menstrual cycle. This means that your blood sugar levels may be higher at certain times of your cycle. To prevent significant swings in your blood glucose, test your blood sugar frequently. You may want to take note of the day of your cycle when testing your sugar levels. This can give you insight into the relationship between your hormonal cycles and blood glucose levels.
Women Have a Higher Risk of Certain Complications
Women are at greater risk for a variety of diabetic complications. One of the biggest is cardiovascular disease, which is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States. Heart disease tends to be managed more aggressively in men, in part because of a lack of awareness of the risk posed to women by the disease. Moreover, women manifest different signs of heart attacks that may make them less likely to seek treatment.
In addition to cardiovascular disease, women with diabetes have a higher risk of blindness than men. They may also be more vulnerable to mental health conditions such as depression.
Diabetes is an equal opportunity disease, affecting roughly the same number of women and men in the United States. However, as covered above, the ways in which diabetes manifests itself can differ by gender. Understanding how diabetes affects women differently than men can help you stay healthy and better manage your condition.