Viruses do not discriminate. They aren't really alive – they need to infect a living host in order to reproduce and survive. So they don't care about your income level, your race, your sex, your age, or anything else. They just see you as a petri dish for their own reproduction.
But those factors can determine your chance of survival.
And while we could write pages about the disproportionate number of low-income Americans getting the virus, the problems with folks who can't afford health care, and the issues surrounding people of color having higher infection rates, there's one more difference that isn't getting as much press...
Men are dying from COVID-19 more than women.
That's across other factors too – it comes down simply to a difference of sex.
We've seen a few reports from countries like China, France, Italy, and South Korea that point to male death rates that are 50% higher than female death rates.
And while we're still working hard to gather demographic data here in the U.S., some cities like New York already show this disparity.
But we always rely on the facts to get us past the fear. So today, I want to walk you through three big points you need to know about this gender difference.
First, we need to look at underlying conditions. We already know that the elderly and those with compromised immune systems have a higher risk of complications and death. But that's mostly true for any virus.
But underlying conditions like heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes all complicate COVID-19. And we know that men tend to develop more of these chronic conditions than women do, and often much earlier. For instance, men usually experience their first heart attack in their mid-60s, whereas women have their first heart attack in their early 70s.
On the surface, it appears that men are more likely to develop a chronic health condition than women. In fact, a study from the International Journal of Epidemiology found that men develop more chronic illnesses than women. They found that by the age of 70.5 (the average lifespan at the time of the study), 58.1% of men had at least one chronic disease whereas only 50.9% of women did.
Next, women have better immunity.
This is an important point in the difference between men and women when it comes to COVID-19. Women have stronger, more robust responses to disease. We've read several studies that show women's immune system kicks in far stronger than men's against RNA viruses, like coronavirus.
It comes down to women having an extra X chromosome (women are XX, men are XY). A study from Belgium's Ghent University found that the X chromosome carries extra genetic material called microRNA. These microRNAs are basically small pieces of code like your DNA. They work by interacting with different processes in our cells. One thing they do is amp up our immune response. So women genetically have an advantage.
As men, we need to work harder to boost our immune system. And much of that comes down to the last point in the difference between men and women...
Finally, men have worse health behaviors. I know some of you will argue with me on this, but men don't wash their hands as well or as often as women.
The American Society for Microbiology conducts periodic studies that observe folks in public restrooms of busy areas, like baseball stadiums and train stations. In the latest study from 2010, they saw 77% of men washed their hands after using the restroom, while 93% of women did.
As we've mentioned before, frequent handwashing that lasts at least 20 seconds is key for destroying the virus. That's because the soap and friction break down the virus's outer wall.
It's not just handwashing though. Men also tend to participate in other behaviors that put them at higher risk. One of the biggest we've seen, and certainly a contributing factor for those numbers out of Italy and China, is smoking. Men smoke much more than women. That puts them at greater risk for complications from respiratory illnesses.
Men also fail to seek medical attention at the same rate as women. A survey from the health care research foundation, the Commonwealth Fund, found how big of a problem this is. They found that 25% of men wanted to "wait as long as possible" before getting help for a medical problem. That could be anywhere from a few days to weeks. For some cases, that's the difference between life and death.
So men, if you're showing any symptoms of COVID-19, call your doctor immediately. It isn't "manly" to try and tough it out – it's stupid and dangerous. Symptoms to look for include:
- Fever (especially if it's higher than 100.4)
- Trouble breathing
Other symptoms include losing a sense of smell or taste. Studies have reported this happens in about a third of COVID-19 patients.
Regardless of your sex, it's more important now than ever to keep your immune system healthy. That means even in a time of lockdowns and quarantine, you need to focus on these:
1. Stay active. Movement and exercise will keep your body healthy and your immune system strong.
2. Eat right. Many chronic diseases stem from inflammation. So cut back on trans fats and processed foods – all these do is ramp up inflammation. Eating more foods rich in antioxidants will keep your immune system healthy, too – so be sure to get plenty of vitamin C especially. I like to get mine through not just citrus fruits, but from leafy greens, too.
3. Sleep. Getting enough quality sleep doesn't just keep your brain healthy, it keeps your immune system working well, too.
I wrote about more ways to stay healthy during the weeks ahead during the COVID-19 crisis. You can read them in my latest issue of Retirement Millionaire. If you're a subscriber, click here to read it now. If you aren't yet a subscriber, click here to learn more about signing up.
What We're Reading...
- Harvard summarizes the key differences between men and women in health care.
- Something different: That's one way to quarantine...
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
April 14, 2020