Women everywhere are striving for equality from the board room to sports fields. But our very own bodies, our defining identity, react worse to stress and put us at risk for certain medical conditions when compared with men’s bodies.
To get a better understanding of the pandemic health effects on women, we need to consider the unique health risks and outcomes influenced by gender. For example, women have higher rates of obesity in comparison to men. Women also have more medical conditions at one time (comorbidities) compared to men.
It’s clear there were gender health disparities before the pandemic. And now we see that the pandemic has taken a far greater toll on women versus men. The ever-growing numbers of infections and deaths are not the only measures of the pandemic, especially for women.
This is all alarming, but it leaves the question: How does the COVID-19 pandemic continue to affect women’s health?
“Caregiver Burden” Is a Woman’s Burden
In 2019, 57.4% of all women participated in the workforce in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – yet it didn’t alleviate their responsibilities and roles within the home. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when the pandemic hit, the responsibilities of managing households, childcare, remote learning and elder care fell disproportionately on women, including working women.
This puts women caregivers more at risk to experience a specific stress called “caregiver burden,” which is a toll that caregivers experience not only on their social or financial well-being, but also on their emotional and physical well-being.
Women are experiencing this burden during a time when they’re isolated and in need of social support networks. The isolation exacerbates the effects on women’s mental and physical well-being.
A Parallel Mental Health Pandemic Plagues Women
We cannot ignore the parallel mental health pandemic affecting women as a direct result of COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, there was evidence that women experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety more than men. We even saw mental health play a significant role in the professional careers of world class athletes Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles.
Recent data supports that the pandemic has only made gender disparities in mental health worse.
- A 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found three in 10 mothers said they needed and were unable to get mental health services in the past year.
- In March of 2021, a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 51% of women versus 34% of men said that worry or stress related to the pandemic has affected their mental health.
- A study from Stanford found that the risk of depression doubled in pregnant women during the pandemic.
- A study from Harvard found women who are pregnant, postpartum, miscarrying or experiencing intimate partner violence are at especially high risk for developing mental health problems during the pandemic.
These are some initial mental health findings, and we have yet to see the full effect when we unravel from this pandemic. This also leaves the question: What effect will this mental health burden have on women’s physical health?
The Mind-Body Connection Is Real
Physical and mental health are much more connected than many people realize – the mind-body connection is real.
How many times have you heard someone say, “Don’t stress so much; you’ll have a heart attack”? Just six months ago researchers reported that women with high job strain, high stressful life events and high social strain were significantly associated with a higher risk of having a heart attack for the first time. They made this conclusion from observing over 80,000 women in the U.S. and found a 21% increase in risk of having a heart attack. This is not insignificant.
During the pandemic, there’s been some early data to suggest women are more at risk for heart disease than men. Research shows that people with mental health conditions are more likely to have preventable physical health conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Based on early data, this seems to be true with the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Canadian study of more than 28,000 women found that women who had limited social participation or were alone during the pandemic had higher odds of having high blood pressure. In contrast, being alone was associated with lower blood pressures in men. This is a drastic difference.
Having high blood pressure puts you at significant risk for having a heart attack. Since we needed to social distance during the pandemic, these findings could suggest that the pandemic has possibly increased the chances of women having heart disease.
Impacts on Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Lives
As the world sheltered in place, couples naturally found ways to pass the time. Women’s biological differences make them vulnerable to unique health issues that men just would not experience. As a result, the pandemic did not spare the sexual and reproductive health of women. For example:
- Pregnant women have been found to have more severe COVID-19 infections, increased hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions.
- There were more cesarean section done among COVID-19-positive patients.
- A survey of U.S. women shows that more than 40% of women reported changing their plans about when to have children or how many children to have because of the pandemic. And 30% reported experiencing pandemic-related delays or cancellations for contraceptive care.
What Can We Do Now?
The pandemic obviously had immediate effects on women’s health, but will also have long-term consequences that we need to start addressing now – even at an individual level. We cannot continue to be blind to the fact that there are gender differences in health and how the pandemic has widened these disparities. We need to deal with the aftermath.
I’ve dealt with the mental and physical health issues of the pandemic firsthand with my patients, friends, family and myself as a female doctor. These are some first steps to get ahead of gender health disparities in your personal life:
- Make an appointment with your primary care provider or gynecologist now.
- Schedule recommended blood work, imaging studies such as mammograms, heart studies or other diagnostic tests as soon as possible.
- Contact your health insurance to connect you with a health coach to help you better understand and manage your health.
- Consider getting care through telehealth for physical and mental health issues.
If you or someone you know is dealing with stressful life issues, talk with a primary care doctor or another health professional to connect you to the right mental health services. You can also go to MentalHealth.gov to find resources.
We need to consider this pandemic as an opportunity to work towards gender health equality by addressing these differences not only to better serve women, but to have a healthier society as a whole.