The Overlooked Landscape of Women’s Brain Health and Why More Research is Needed!

Happy International Women’s Day! This is a day to celebrate for us, 3.95 billion women, or half of humanity living on earth today.

However today, as on any other day since the beginning of times, women live their lives in a society tailored to a male norm. A sobering fact is that women make up two-thirds of the global health and social care workforce. 

So keeping girls and women healthy should be a clear social focus. If not for any other reason than the societal benefits, especially for children and the elderly.

Female diagnoses increase, healthcare gap persists

Starting from low numbers, ADHD diagnoses among girls and women are increasing. However, females are still diagnosed later than males. Which increases the risk of adverse physical, mental and sexual outcomes during the formative years of their lives. 

Our research has identified a painful gap. It shows that healthcare reports that females with ADHD consume over ten times more resources for psychiatric and somatic conditions compared to women without ADHD. 

At the same time, women with ADHD themselves report how they are constantly misunderstood, neglected and let down by healthcare. How can this be? Who is right and who is wrong? And most importantly, is there anything that we can do about this?

The fact is that the low well-being and quality of life reported by women with ADHD is reflected in low everyday function and subsequent suffering. 

Living with ADHD, undiagnosed or diagnosed, you probably already are feeling ignored, abandoned or misunderstood by conventional healthcare. This can easily turn into mistrust and desperation as you keep searching for explanations and remedies for your mental health challenges, diffuse somatic symptoms and pain conditions. 

Unfortunately, few studies and often of low quality, have focused on this significant and vulnerable group of women. A group utilizing a considerable amount of healthcare resources.

Hence women and clinicians are left in an almost complete void of research. When at the same time, trying to understand why their health, everyday function and quality of life are so painfully low. 

Risks of neglecting gender differences in research

This lack of interest for female-specific challenges in mental and psychosocial health is unfair. The knowledge gap opens the market for opportunistic providers of “pseudoscientific health interventions”, medical advice and far-reaching changes in lifestyle. And even includes extreme exercises or dietary interventions, such as the exclusion of caffeine, gluten, carbohydrates or other extreme diets. 

Yet others, claim that women may suffer from “hormonal imbalances” and recommend expensive blood works, non-evidence-based hormonal treatments or combinations of vitamins and herbal extracts purchased over the internet. These interventions are at best only expensive and useless. 

At worst, they can cause real harm, putting further stress on individuals prone to functional somatic conditions, anxiety or depression. 

So, be aware and stay critical! 

Just because someone highlights girls and women doesn’t mean that what they do will empower females. Nor do any good in the long run. However, how reasonable they may sound, advice and recommendations for girls and women are way too often taken out of context or based on research done on boys or men. 

According to Emily G. Jacobs, associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara:

“Less than 0.5% of over 50,000 human-brain-imaging studies consider health factors specific to women.”1 

That’s especially problematic when we see a steep rise in the prevalence of neurological conditions among women. 

Perhaps not too surprisingly, this gender gap is also present in funding for research focusing on conditions unique to women for example, endometriosis, hormonal contraceptives, pregnancy-related problems and menopause. Or overrepresented in women, such as anxiety, fibromyalgia, pain conditions or chronic fatigue syndrome.2

We need to act now! 

Because, while we are waiting for high qualitative gender-informed research, women with ADHD and other psychiatric conditions will look for non-evidence-based healthcare interventions. Which puts them at further risk. 

The International Women’s Day keeps serving as a reminder of the important work that lies ahead of us. So, let’s remind ourselves that addressing and prioritizing female health is a shortcut to a better and healthier society. 

Because, when you give girls and women the right to equal education, healthcare and family planning, the positive effects on mental, physical and reproductive health will ripple across generations to come!

  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s44220-023-00125-w ↩︎
  2. https://www.nature.com/immersive/d41586-023-01475-2/index.html ↩︎
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