Changing Gender Differences in Health in Childhood and Adolescence
Much less research attention has been given to gender differences in the health of children and young people than to those among adults. However, a review of data drawn from a variety of academic and official publications suggested that the overall picture is one of a gradual emergence of excess morbidity in females over this life stage. This has been frequently commented upon in respect of emotional disorders, but has also been observed in respect of physical illness, specifically chronic illness and two common childhood physical conditions (asthma and migraine/headaches).
Analyses of the 11 to 16/16+ study dataset confirmed this, finding that generally high levels of health problems at age 11 tended to increase with age, these increases being greater for females than males. The consequence, by age 15, was the emergence of a female excess in general ill-health and depressive mood, and a substantial strengthening of the small excess in both ‘physical' and ‘malaise' symptoms already apparent at 11 years. Further analyses examined the contribution of a range of factors (self-esteem, body image, gender-role orientation, body mass index, smoking and physical activity) to explaining the female excess in three psychosomatic symptoms (that is ‘physical’ symptoms less likely to reflect organic disease, and more likely to comprise a substantial psychological component) and depressive mood at age 15. Together, these factors accounted for one third the female excess in headaches and stomach problems, half the excess in dizziness and almost all that in respect of depressive mood. However self-esteem and body image were by far the most important, and adjustment for these factors contributed most to explaining the female excess in both the psychosomatic symptoms and depressive mood. These results suggest that studies which seek to account for a female excess in ‘physical’ symptoms of a less clearly psychosomatic nature would require different sets of factors.
A qualitative PhD project was conducted to develop a deeper understanding of the changes in the gender patterning of symptoms which occur during the transition from childhood to adolescence. Using focus groups and individual interviews, it explored the ways in which influences on symptom reporting may differ and change according to gender and age. One focus was the comparison of young people's experiences of a psychological (feeling sad or depressed) and a physical (stomach ache) symptom.