New data from WHO/Europe shows links between gender and noncommunicable diseases

Men and women have different biological and behavioural risk factors for contracting noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), as shown by a new series of WHO reports released today. The reports analyse gender-specific data on NCDs from 8 different countries providing interesting insights on the links between gender and certain NCDs.

The evidence gathered from Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Republic of Moldova, Turkey, Ukraine and Uzbekistan highlights that socially constructed gender norms, roles and behaviours across the WHO European Region have a serious impact on health risks of men and women as different social groups. Those factors tend to change with age and according to social, economic, environmental and cultural influences.

“Behaviours are influenced by gender norms, roles and relations, which affect exposure to risk factors and health and help-seeking behaviours. Our interactions with the health system, including treatment adherence and outcomes, also vary based on gender,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

“This necessary gender-responsive approach is operationalized in the WHO European Programme of Work, our agenda for health 2020–2025, ‘United Action for Better Health’. The agenda mobilizes action to leave no one behind, including by identifying those groups of women and men who are more difficult to reach through effective policies and interventions. I am convinced that the enhanced country focus within the European Programme of Work will mean these findings will be used to accelerate the NCD response, from prevention to care, and support gender-responsive health systems across our region.”

Results of the data analysis are presented in 8 country-specific reports that show how gender is linked to the burden of noncommunicable diseases. NCDs continue to be the main health hazard in the European Region. NCDs like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases account for an estimated 89% of all deaths and 84% of disabilities in the Region.

The data has been gathered through the WHO STEPwise approach to Surveillance (STEPS) NCD risk-factor survey. STEPS is an internationally comparable and standardized surveillance tool that comprises structured household interviews followed by physical and biological measurements – from weight and height to blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol levels. Using data from STEPS, not only levels of NCD risk factors but also inequalities can be determined.

Different health hazards for men and women

According to the study, significantly higher percentages of men than women in most age groups engage in risk-associated behaviour. This includes tobacco smoking, alcohol consumption, insufficient intake of fruits and vegetables, adding salt to meals and frequent consumption of processed foods.

On the other hand, a higher percentage of women in the older age groups are found to have most of the biological risk factors, such as overweight and obesity, and raised blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol. In younger age groups men tend to have higher levels of biological risk factors.

Overall, cardiovascular diseases remain the main contributor to the burden of NCDs for both men and women. Although premature mortality from those conditions was declining for decades, a stagnation or even increase has been observed recently in some countries.

Improved NCD response needed

The reports highlight that social and economic inequality has a significant negative impact on people’s health and it may influence men and women differently. Compared to men and women with a high level of education or income, disadvantaged men and women with lower education or income levels reported less frequently that health-care professionals measured their most common risk factors for NCDs, like blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol. At the same time, the prevalence of biological risk factors is typically higher for men with a high-level of education and women with a low-level of education than for others.

The new WHO findings make an important contribution to achieving international commitments in accelerating action towards reducing the NCD burden and ensuring healthy lives for all, at all ages, leaving no one behind. This is one of the core priorities of the WHO European Programme of Work 2020–2025, which aims to create a region where community-based public health actions and appropriate public policies secure a better life in an economy of well-being.