Older men are getting sicker than women and it's more than just COVID-19 | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Older men are getting sicker than women and it's more than just COVID-19

Dr. Danuta Skowronski, B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
Image Credit: Submitted/B.C. Centre for Disease Control

Whether you’re a 45-year-old man or in your 80s, if you catch COVID-19 you’re much more likely to get seriously sick than your female friend.

And, the older you get, the greater the chance becomes that you will die from it.

But, that trend is not confined to the novel coronavirus.

“These sorts of sex interactions have been observed, for instance, for other respiratory viruses, including influenza,” Dr. Danuta Skowronski, medical lead for influenza and emerging respiratory pathogens at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, told iNFOnews.ca.

“We haven’t solved the puzzle of why we see these sorts of interactions for other, much more long-standing, human pathogens such as influenza, so it’s still early days with COVID-19,” she said. “I can’t say there is conclusive, complete understanding other than there seems to be a signal that is evident and persistent in multiple jurisdictions.”

Data posted on the agency’s website shows, for example, that 31 per cent of men aged 60-69 years who test positive for COVID-19 end up in hospital versus only 22 per cent of women in that age group. The death rate is five per cent for men and four per cent for women.

But the gaps grow as people age, with 43 per cent of men aged 80-89 dying versus 23 per cent of women.

In the younger age groups, for those under the age of 40, there is no gender difference.

These are numbers that were provided by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control for COVID-19. The ratios don’t necessarily apply to other viruses and such comparisons have not been done.

Image Credit: Submitted/B.C. Centre for Disease Control

Given that, in the past, much scientific research assumed there were no differences between men and women, the reasons behind these gender gaps in older people are still mostly a matter of speculation.

Some differences may be hormonal while others might be behavioural.

In 2018, Dr. Skowronski co-authored a study on the difference between men and women in terms of the effectiveness of flu vaccines. It found, for some viruses, women responded better than men.

“Although few studies have investigated sex differences in vaccine protection, females have been shown to have stronger innate and adaptive immune responses, including more pronounced antibody response to influenza vaccine,” the report states. “Some (researchers) have attributed these differences to sex steroids that alter the function of immune cells by binding to specific receptors and influencing cell signaling pathways.”

Some studies have shown estrogen, at certain concentrations, have a “pro-inflammatory” role while progesterone and testosterone in men can be immunosuppressive.

That study also found that the differences increased with age.

On the behavioural side, men may have more underlying health issues that have gone undetected because they’re less likely to go to their doctors.

Smoking may be another factor, Skowronski said.

Statistics Canada reported that, in 2018, 18.6 per cent of Canadian men over the age of 12 smoked versus 13 per cent of women.

It will take a lot more “extensive and expensive” research to determine the underlying causes of these gender differences, Skowronski said, noting that it’s likely to be a combination of factors.

Many funding agencies require new health research to factor in gender differences and that will, undoubtedly, be an issue when it comes to testing potential COVID-19 vaccines.

“There will be questions asked about that,” Skowronski said. “I will be asking those questions.”

READ MORE: More men than women infected with COVID-19 in B.C. and globally

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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