Women's relative immunity to the socio-economic health gradient: artifact or real?

Global health action

PubMedID: 25947541

Phillips SP, Hamberg K. Women's relative immunity to the socio-economic health gradient: artifact or real?. Glob Health Action. 2015;827259.
Individual and area socio-economic status (SES) are significant predictors of morbidity and mortality in developed and developing countries. However, the span in health from poorest to richest, that is, the socio-economic gradient, appears steeper for men than women.

Our aim is to understand women's apparent immunity to the health harms of the SES gradient.

Findings from a non-systematic search of Medline for population-based, SES gradient studies reporting results for both men and women and with health outcomes of morbidity, mortality or self-rated health (SRH) were reflectively analyzed.

The 36 papers reviewed generally showed women to be relatively immune to the SES gradient for all but cardiovascular health outcomes. However, addressing the interconnected nature of socio-economic circumstances, exploring whether some measures of SES had ambiguous meanings for either women or men, including modifiers of SES such as household circumstances, social capital or area gender equity, or using indicators of area SES that were contextual rather than aggregates of individual, compositional measures increased the SES gradient for women. Outcome measures that combined mental and physical health, accounted for gender differences in SRH and adjusted for sex-specific differences in causes of mortality also explained some of the observed amelioration of the SES gradient among women.

Socio-economic circumstances have a real and sustained impact on individual health. The SES gradient appears stronger for men than for women for all health outcomes other than heart disease. However, some of the observed variability between men and women may be an artifact of biased methodology. Considering webs of causation rather than individual markers of SES along with other sources of gender bias can explain much of women's blunted socio-economic gradient and deepen understanding of the pathways from SES to morbidity and mortality overall.