Man as the Norm of Medicine

February, among other things, is Heart Awareness Month. Heart disease is by far the most common health threat to both men and women.

Breast cancer gets a lot of attention because boobs are sexy, and it affects roughly one out of every eight women. I have two aunts who are breast cancer survivors, and a close friend who is about to end treatment. Another neighbor is about to undergo a radical mastectomy because she has the BRCA 1 gene. Breasts are a fundamental part of who a woman is; they represent sensuality, fertility and motherhood–even if you choose not to procreate or breastfeed. Everything is plastered pink in October to celebrate, even though a lot of the profits raised from “awareness campaigns” don’t actually fund research or prevention.

To compare, one in three women will get heart disease, making it a much more common killer. Despite this alarming statistic, heart disease is still considered to be a “man’s problem,” and a lot of heart disease research, especially in terms of symptoms, is framed this way: men are the “normal” of medicine, and anything that deviates from the norm, namely women, are “different,” “unique,” “not equal.”

I wouldn’t make such a big deal out of this but I’ve looked and other than one sentence in one article telling me that women’s arteries are smaller than men’s and a few paragraphs telling me that women’s hearts are smaller, no one can explain why women have different symptoms of heart disease than men. Why is it that women are different? Women make up roughly half the world’s population. (Taking into account that people in many countries abort or kill female fetuses and babies, I believe that number could be higher.) They can’t be too different, can they? It’s not as though I’m talking about a rare creature that can’t be studied.

In medicine, women are usually considered in terms of their reproductive systems; after all, it’s what makes us different than men. When something is wrong with me, the first thing I’m asked is if my menstrual cycle is regular. I don’t know what my periods have to do with a sinus infection or how a family history of high cholesterol can affect my chances for heart disease. Men are usually considered more holistically.

But considering that heart disease is so common and it affects so many women, why does funding go to research and clinical trials for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of heart disease in men?


Man as the Norm of Medicine

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