Sex Matters: Why Men (and Women) Are The Way They Are

33125218_d11b2957ba_zLike most creatures I’ve always been interested in sex. I’m not just talking about the pleasures of carnal union, but also the very essence of what it means to be male and female. Did you know that there are 10 trillion cells in human body and every one of them is sex specific? Recalling what we learned in biology class, we all start out as a single cell and each cell has 23 sets of chromosomes.  The first 22 pairs line up nicely and look similar.  The last pair are called the sex chromosomes labeled X or Y. Females have two X chromosomes (XX), and males have an X and a Y chromosome (XY).

According to David C. Page, M.D., professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), every cell in our bodies carries either an XX chromosome or an XY chromosome. And these differences can be important.  It has been said that our genomes are 99.9% identical from one person to the next.  “It turns out that this assertion is correct,” says Dr. Page, “as long as the two individuals being compared are both men.  It’s also correct if the two individuals being compared are both women. But the genetic difference between a man and a woman are 15 times greater than the genetic difference between two men or between two women.”

These differences can have an important impact on our health.  Marianne J. Legato, M.D, is the author of Eve’s Rib:  The New Science of Gender-Specific Medicine. “Everywhere we look, the two sexes are startlingly and unexpectedly different,” she says, “not only in their internal function but in the way they experience illness.”

For instance, it was long assumed that heart disease manifested the same in men and women. But it turns out the symptoms of a heart attack may be very different in men than in women. Men may experience the classic symptoms of chest pain that may radiate down the left arm. Women more often have symptoms including shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Another sex difference involves depression, which is very common in men and women. However, we now know that men and women often experience depression differently. This was personally important to me, since my father had tried to commit suicide when I was five years old. When I grew up and began research on sex and gender differences, I found that women are often sad when they are depressed, but men are often irritable and angry.

This was certainly true of my father. However, no one recognized that he was depressed until the suicide attempt. Though he survived physically, our lives were never the same. I believe that if people had recognized the symptoms of depression in my father, the suicide attempt might have been avoided.

The emerging field of gender-specific medicine can be of tremendous help to both men and women. I look forward to your questions and comments. If you are concerned about these issues or want to learn more, email me or follow me on Twitter.

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  1. Jed, I’m happy to see that medicine is FINALLY beginning to account for the differences in how disease presents in male and female patients.

    This was among one of the early concerns cited by the women’s movement in the ’60s and 70s. Heart diesase is a good example as it is among the leading causes of death for women, though only recently has medicine acknowledged the differences in how women experience symptoms.

    I was schocked when my late mother told me that both Mary Livingston (comdeian and wife of Jack Benny) and Gracie Allen (also a comedian and wife of George Burns )both died from heart attacks. Had women’s health been better understood at the time, these two high profile women could have reached 100s of 1,000s of other women about heart health.

    I’m looking forward to us learning even more about the differences between the genders. I suspect that men and women LEARN differently, as well. In this arena, it’s possible that male learners could have been getting the shorter shrift since education is a field largely dominated by women.

    Knowledge is power, always. Hopefully we can put our gender politics aside and use the knowledge for the making of stronger people!


  2. It is refreshing to see this topic of differences and similarities broached from a biological perspective.
    The truth is that we are more alike than many would care to accept yet as many might suggest irritatingly different at the same time.
    There is a glaring lack of current information regarding our biology which in my view holds the key to a better understanding of who we are how we function and the possible predictors for some of our individual actions and experiences.
    It makes interesting conversation to discuss the differences at a macro level, but the key I would submit is for each person to aspire to “know thyself”.
    In an age when there are so many tools and resources available one could be said at some level to be irresponsible in their collective disregard.
    Given the prevalence of chronic degenerative diseases in our society and their impact on morbidity and mortality, helpful information vis a vis personal risk and possible proactive strategies can only prove helpful.
    It is possible to relinquish the total reliance on one’s primary healthcare provider for ALL the answers and corrective strategies when health challenges arise.
    It is possible for example to determine one’s genetic blueprint and its interpretation fora reletively modest fee combined…
    ( 23And Me and Promethease…..two companies from which this information can be gleaned)
    Maybe it is time for Men to embrace the fact that we are in truth the “Weaker Sex”,the more fragile of the species and more susceptible to an early demise.
    It would seem that an immediate action step in reducing the more than 100,000 premature deaths experienced by men would be a personal mission to unravel as best they can their unique biological blueprint from which intelligent lifestyle choices can be made.
    Ultimately the differences have far less significance when juxtaposed to any individuals quality of life.
    There are too few mentors, there are too few elders, , there are too many orphans, there are too many widows.
    Thank you Jed for approaching this topic

  3. Rebecca and Rico,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and personal responses. Men and women are indeed much alike (as we are with our primate relatives the Bonobos and Chimps), but there are also important differences. It is important that we know ourselves at every level of our being, from our genetics to the way in which a dysfunctional and unsustainable culture creates stress that causes us all to become ill. We will heal together or not at all. We must solve our social problems if we have hope of solving our personal problems. And we must know ourselves in all our glory and love ourselves in order to solve our social problems. Nice to have you on journey.