How Being Male or Female Affects Our Hearts, Kidneys and Waistlines

When it comes to health, men and women aren’t always equal. Biological factors, such as our anatomy and hormones, affect the way our bodies behave when we’re healthy and when we face health challenges.

Top researchers who study the influence of biological sex on health and disease gathered earlier this month in Knoxville, Tenn., for the Cardiovascular, Renal and Metabolic Diseases: Sex-Specific Implications for Physiology conference. Attendees discussed how biological sex increases our risks—or protects us from—a range of health conditions, including heart and kidney disease, diabetes and obesity. They also discussed how sex-specific physiological responses may pave the way for more individualized treatments for common ailments. Read on to learn more.

Calorie Restriction

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Crash dieting—reducing calories drastically to lose weight rapidly—might seem like the ideal way to slim down quickly for a special occasion. But new research from Georgetown University finds that the short-term body changes that come from severe calorie reduction have long-lasting effects that aren’t healthy. Studies in female rats showed that heart rate and blood pressure decreased and menstrual cycles stopped after just a few days of dieting. When the rats gained back the weight, they tended to put on belly fat, not likely the outcome that most dieters want. The rats also had a higher risk for developing hypertension after extreme dieting.

Group of people on elliptical trainer exercising in gym

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As women grow older and estrogen (female sex hormone) levels drop, their risk of developing osteoporosis (loss of bone density) increases. Exercise or hormone replacement therapy can help prevent this type of bone loss. Researchers from the University of Colorado, Denver School of Medicine observed women with a temporary loss of ovarian function to see how lack of estrogen affected other body systems. Some of the women were put on an exercise program during the study and others were not. All of the volunteers burned fewer calories, gained weight, and lost muscle mass when estrogen levels decreased. However, the women who exercised were protected against the decrease in bone density that the non-exercise group experienced.

Diagnosis Low testosterone and pen on a desk.

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Levels of testosterone—the primary male sex hormone—usually peak during a man’s teens and early adulthood and begin to fall as early as age 30. Low testosterone, also called “low T” or hypogonadism, can be easily treated with hormone supplements for most men. However, a study from the University of Mississippi Medical Center reports that hormone therapy might not be safe for everyone. Studies of obese rodents found that the combination of testosterone supplements and body weight caused blood pressure to increase, which in turn boosts risk factors for heart disease. Translated, this might mean that for men who have had a stroke or heart attack, taking hormones may do more harm than good.

Researchers also discussed:

Erica Roth 

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