The Gender Gap: Know Your Risks

Being a woman makes you more likely to be diagnosed with certain health issues, such as depression, insomnia and migraines. We find out why – and look at how you can beat the odds

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

There’s a real, tangible “gender gap” with some diseases and we don’t mean obvious ones, such as breast cancer, endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome. The reality is that women are more at risk of a few common health issues, such as depression, insomnia and migraines. The question is why, and what can you do about it?

Here’s what you need to know about six health problems you’re more at risk of, just because you’re a woman.


THE STATS A research conducted by the Duke-NUS Medical School and Novartis found that migraines tend to be more common in adult women than in men. According to the Migraine Research Foundation in New York, women tend to suffer from migraine three times as often as men.

WHY Monthly hormonal fluctuations are thought to play a role – more than 50 per cent of migraines that occur in women strike just before, during or after a monthly period. But lab-based research also suggests that women’s brains may have a faster trigger than men’s for activating the waves of activity responsible for migraines.

FIGHT BACK BY Making sure your diet is full of folate-rich foods, such as spinach, citrus fruits, legumes and eggs. Folate, a B-vitamin, can significantly reduce the frequency of migraine attacks, by lowering levels of a headache-triggering protein called homocysteine.


THE STATS One in five women has a stroke in their lifetime, compared to one in six men. According to the Singapore Heart Foundation, heart disease and stroke combined is the leading cause of death among women in Singapore.

WHY Women have some unique stroke risk factors. On top of that, the use of some types of hormone replacement therapies and contraceptive pills can increase the risk of blood clots, leading to an ischaemic stroke. Women are also more at risk of experiencing blood vessel bursting in the brain, which causes a haemorrhagic stroke.

FIGHT BACK BY Doing more exercise. Your stroke risk falls by more than a third the fitter you are after the age of 45. One explanation is that exercising for more than four hours a week means you’re 20 per cent less likely to have high blood pressure, a known risk trigger for stroke.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

THE STATS It occurs in three times as many women as men.

WHY Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a type of autoimmune disease, a group of diseases that are more prevalent in women than men. The exact reasons for this aren’t clear yet, but a combination of X-chromosome and immunity-related genes, as well as hormones and environmental factors, is likely to play a role.

FIGHT BACK BY Eating oily fish, such as salmon, tuna and sardines for at least once a week. These fishes are high in omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA and EPA, and these omega-3s help block inflammatory substances, which works to lower the risk of developing RA by as much as 52 per cent. Fish oils have also been found to decrease joint tenderness and stiffness in RA patients, too.


THE STATS A survey conducted in 2018 by Wakefield Research places Singapore as the second most in-need-of-sleep country, out of 12. Many international studies have also shown that insomnia is more common in women, compared to men.

WHY Hormonal changes play a role, particularly around menopause, which increases the risk of insomnia. On top of that, recent research shows that women may be more likely than men to inherit specific genes that increase the likelihood of experiencing insomnia.

FIGHT BACK BY Devoting 20 minutes a day to mindfulness meditation. According to a study, that can create a significant improvement in sleep quality for people living with insomnia. If you’re not sure how to meditate, download apps such as Headspace ( or Calm (


THE STATS The Singapore Mental Health Study in 2017 found that the lifetime prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) was higher among women (7.2 per cent) compared to men (4.3 per cent).

WHY Certain life events, specific to women, can increase the risk of depression, including having a baby or going through menopause early. Menopause is also a risk factor if you have a history of depression. Plus, women are more likely to be carers for other family members, which can increase the risk of depression.

FIGHT BACK BY Spending at least 30 minutes in a “green space” each week makes you much less likely to experience depression, a 2016 study shows. It may be because time in nature leads to decreased activity in a brain region associated with rumination or repetitive negative thoughts – a critical factor in the development of depression.

Alzheimer’s Disease

THE STATS According to the 2014 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report by the Alzheimer’s Association in the US, one in six women over the age of 65 will develop Alzheimer’s disease, compared to one in 11 men.

WHY Women’s brains tend to accumulate more amyloid, a protein that forms the plaques that play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s. Researches still are not sure why, but one theory is that carrying two X chromosomes increases the risk of inheriting a gene that bumps up the risk of the disease.

FIGHT BACK BY Following the MIND diet, which can lower your Alzheimer’s risk by as much as 53 per cent, according to a 2015 study. In fact, even following the diet’s principles moderately well can help lower your risk of Alzheimer’s by about 35 per cent. As well as watching what you eat, you can also take the following steps to help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s:


Manage your blood pressure and cholesterol levels and weight.


Those who participate in regular physical activity have healthier brains, and better memory, planning and thinking skills. Aim for 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate-intensity physical exercise per week, and muscle-strengthening exercises for at least two days every week.


Studies have shown that challenging your brain with new activities builds new brain cells and strengthens the connections between them.


Ensuring your type 2 diabetes is managed has been shown to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.


Participating in social activities has been shown to lower the risk of developing dementia. Incorporate physical activity in your social life. Go dancing or opt for team sports to provide even more significant benefits for brain health.


Evidence is emerging about the physical effects that depression can have on the brain. Getting help for depression can reduce your chances of developing dementia.
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"Fish oils have also been found to decrease joint tenderness and stiffness in patients with rheumatoid arthritis"
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KNOW YOUR CUTS. Get tail pieces from the back end of the fillet for stove-top cooking. Cutlets for barbecuing and char-grilling. Fillet from the shoulder for the oven.

COOKING DURATION. Marks recommends medium-rare. Cook your fish skin-side down over a medium-heat stove for around 4 to 5 minutes. Then, give it a flip and cook for another 3 minutes.

GET THAT CRISPY SKIN. Salt the skin of the salmon and set aside. Place a pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot add a tablespoon of olive oil. Place the salmon skin side down into the pan. Press down on the fillet with a fish slice. Cook the skin until crisp, turn then continue cooking until the fish is done.

ACCOMPANYING SIDES. Stick with traditional European flavours. “Three fool-proof sides to serve with salmon are potato puree, braised leeks and char-grilled asparagus,” says Mark. Or try serving it in other ways like in a burger or stew.
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"Spending at least 30 minutes in a “green space” each week makes you much less likely to experience depression"
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Developed by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in the US, the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay Diet, also known as the MIND Diet focuses foods rich in antioxidants,which can reduce oxidative stress.