Exploring the Biological Contributions to Human Health: Does Sex Matter?

Institute of Medicine

Does Sex Matter?

Abstract

One of the most compelling reasons for looking at what is known about the biology of sex differences is that there are striking differences in human disease that are not explained at this time.

Being male or female is an important basic human variable that affects health and illness throughout the life span. Differences in health and illness are influenced by individual genetic and physiological constitutions, as well as by an individual’s interaction with environmental and experiential factors. The incidence and severity of diseases vary between the sexes and may be related to differences in exposures, routes of entry and the processing of a foreign agent, and cellular responses. Although in many cases these sex differences can be traced to the direct or indirect effects of hormones associated with reproduction, differences cannot be solely attributed to hormones.

Therefore, sex should be considered when designing and analyzing studies in all areas and at all levels of biomedical and health-related research. The study of sex differences is evolving into a mature science. There is now sufficient knowledge of the biological basis of sex differences to validate the scientific study of sex differences and to allow the generation of hypotheses with regard to health. The next step is to move from the descriptive to the experimental phase and establish the conditions that must be in place to facilitate and encourage the scientific study of the mechanisms and origins of sex differences. Naturally occurring variations in sex differentiation can provide unique opportunities to obtain a better understanding of basic differences and similarities between and within the sexes.

Barriers to the advancement of knowledge about sex differences in health and illness exist and must be eliminated. Scientists conducting research on sex differences are confronted with an array of barriers to progress, including ethical, financial, sociological, and scientific factors.

The committee provides scientific evidence in support of the conclusions presented above and makes recommendations to advance the understanding of sex differences and their effects on health and illness.


Institute of Medicine 2001. Exploring the Biological Contributions to Human Health: Does Sex Matter?. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
https://doi.org/10.17226/10028.