Sex Differences in the Excess Risk of Cardiovascular Diseases Associated with Type 2 Diabetes: Potential Explanations and Clinical Implications
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Strong evidence suggests that type 2 diabetes confers a stronger excess risk of cardiovascular diseases in women than in men; with women having a 27 % higher relative risk of stroke and a 44 % higher relative risk of coronary heart disease compared with men. The mechanisms that underpin these sex differences in the associations between diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk are not fully understood. Some of the excess risk may be the result of a sex disparity in the management and treatment of diabetes, to the detriment of women. However, accruing evidence suggests that real biological differences between men and women underpin the excess risk of diabetes-related cardiovascular risk in women such that there is a greater decline in risk factor status in women than in men in the transition from normoglycemia to overt diabetes. This greater risk factor decline appears to be associated with women having to put on more weight than men, and thus attain a higher body mass index, to develop diabetes. Further studies addressing the mechanisms responsible for sex differences in the excess risk of cardiovascular diseases associated with diabetes are needed to improve the prevention and management of diabetes in clinical practise.
KeywordsDiabetes Cardiovascular disease Coronary heart disease Stroke Sex differences Men Women
Diabetes and its complications are major causes of early death in most countries. Approximately 5.1 million individuals died from diabetes in 2013, accounting for 8.4 % of global all-cause mortality amongst adults . Although the global number of deaths due to diabetes is similar between men and women, there are important differences in the global distribution of these deaths . About 25 % more men than women die of diabetes in the Western Pacific region, whereas diabetes accounts for 30 % more deaths in women than in men in Southeast Asia, and for over 50 % more deaths in women in Africa. This disparity may in part be due to higher rates of mortality from other causes, biological factors, or because of poorer access to healthcare amongst women in some regions.
Diabetes also poses a large economic and social burden on individuals and families, national health systems and countries. Health spending on diabetes accounted for 11 % of total health expenditure worldwide in 2013, equating to 548 billion USD and, unsurprisingly, only 20 % of this global health expenditure occurred in low- and middle-income countries, where about 80 % of all individuals with diabetes live . Hence, whilst the impact of the diabetes epidemic is global, it disproportionally affects those living in socially and economically disadvantaged conditions.
Sex Differences in the Excess Risk of Cardiovascular Diseases Associated with Type 2 Diabetes
Sex Differences in the Management of Diabetes
A sex disparity in the management and treatment of cardiovascular risk factors in individuals with diabetes, to the detriment of women, possibly explains the excess risk of CVD in women with diabetes compared to men. Historically, women with diabetes were more likely to have a more adverse cardiovascular risk profile, were treated less aggressively and were less likely to achieve recommended levels of risk factors compared to male counterparts [12, 13, 14, 15, 16]. Whilst access to treatment has become more equitable between the sexes over the past decade, especially in high income countries, sex differences in medication use and risk factor control continue to exist [17, 18]. For example, the 2012–2013 report of the National Diabetes Audit on nearly 2 million individuals with diabetes in the UK showed that 58 % of women and 62 % of men with diabetes received recommended care processes, and that 34 % of women and 37 % of men achieved treatment targets for HbA1c, blood pressure and cholesterol . After controlling for key confounding factors, such as age, ethnicity, deprivation group, body mass index (BMI) and duration of diabetes, women were 15 % less likely than men to meet all recommended care processes. Furthermore, other recent studies have shown that, even when treated similarly, women with diabetes are less likely than men to achieve target values for cardiovascular risk factors [19, 20]. We therefore hypothesise that sex differences in the management of diabetes alone are unlikely to explain all of the excess relative risk of CHD and stroke in women with diabetes. This is also supported by the results from the meta-analyses [7•, 8, 9•], which showed that the impact of accounting for levels of cardiovascular risk factors on the estimated excess risk of CHD and stroke associated with diabetes was similar in men and women.
Sex Differences in Cardiovascular Risk Factors in the Development of Diabetes
Age-adjusted and multiple-adjusted mean differencea (95 % confidence interval) in baseline risk factor levels amongst men and women with and without diabetes
Age-adjusted mean difference
Multiple-adjusted mean difference
Systolic blood pressure (mmHg)
5.33 (5.09; 5.58)
6.79 (6.40; 7.18)
4.18 (3.93; 4.44)
4.70 (4.26; 5.14)
Total cholesterol (mmol/L)
0.22 (0.20; 0.23)
0.24 (0.22; 0.27)
0.15 (0.13; 0.17)
0.14 (0.11; 0.17)
HDL cholesterol (mmol/L)
−0.09 (−0.11; −0.08)
−0.16 (−0.17; −0.14)
−0.06 (−0.08; −0.05)
−0.11 (−0.13; −0.09)
Body Mass Index (kg/m2)
1.01 (0.97; 1.06)
2.00 (1.91; 2.09)
0.64 (0.59; 0.68)
1.66 (1.57; 1.75)
Waist circumference (cm)
5.27 (4.79; 5.75)
9.06 (8.53; 9.59)
0.45 (0.21; 0.70)
2.20 (1.90; 2.50)
Sex Differences in Body Mass Index at the Time of Diagnosis
The sex disparity in BMI at the time of diagnosis of diabetes can be linked to differential patterns of adiposity storage in men and women, and also to a healthier CVD risk profile in women without diabetes versus their male counterparts, as discussed above [31, 32•, 33]. Women, in general, have greater subcutaneous fat storage capacities and, linked to this, carry less visceral (i.e. more hazardous) fat than men. Since subcutaneous storage capacity is lower in men, excess adipose tissue is placed more rapidly into visceral and ectopic tissues, such as the liver and the skeletal muscle, which in turns leads to insulin resistance and interferes with insulin signalling pathways . Women need to accumulate a greater amount of total adiposity, i.e. require attaining a higher level of BMI, than men for their subcutaneous storage to become exhausted, and to reach the same harmful visceral and ectopic fat deposition required to become insulin resistant and to develop diabetes [32•, 34]. Moreover, women, on average, tend to have a greater deterioration in metabolic risk factors including levels of blood pressure, lipids and inflammatory markers, and are likely to have accumulated more time living in a hazardous metabolic environment exacerbated by being in a pre-diabetic state compared with men in whom the deterioration in metabolic indices is less marked. This sex difference in the preferential location of fat storage (subcutaneous in women versus visceral/ectopic in men) and its associated metabolic changes may be crucial to the differential rates of development of diabetes (lower diabetes incidence in adult women) and, once diabetes ensues, to differential complication rates as discussed herein.
Diabetes develops over decades; a recent study demonstrated that men, on average, have pre-diabetes for 8 years, and women for 10 years before they progress to overt diabetes . This window presents an opportunity for identifying individuals at high risk for diabetes, and subsequently, for timely intervention to prevent or delay the onset of diabetes. The widening acceptance of diabetes diagnosis and its high risk states, via either fasting glucose (5.5 to 6.9 mmol/L as high risk) or HbA1c (6.0 to 6.4 % as high risk), has facilitated screening for, and diagnosis of, diabetes in clinical practise [36, 37]. HbA1c has the advantage of not requiring individuals to fast, enabling diagnosis to be done at any time and in any clinical situation, thus improving early detection of high risk for, or existing, diabetes. What is needed now is better facilitation of lifestyle changes to help men and women at risk to favourably change their weight, or weight trajectory, to delay or prevent the onset of diabetes. There is evidence that commercial weight loss companies do better than routine clinical services in helping people to lose weight and that women, in particular, are more comfortable with such services . Similarly, increased awareness of the magnitude and timing of the risk of diabetes after gestational diabetes could provide an opportunity to facilitate lifestyle interventions that might prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes in affected women [39, 40]. Regular monitoring of HbA1c in women with gestational diabetes will help facilitate risk screening. As cardiovascular risk factors escalate more in women as they transition to diabetes, physicians should take particular care to conduct a comprehensive cardiovascular risk assessment in women (whilst not neglecting men) noted to be at elevated risk of diabetes. These ideas fit with the need, wherever possible, to combine risk assessments for CVD and diabetes in primary care, in simple and pragmatic ways, as recently argued . Finally, all physicians should be made aware that development of diabetes is associated with a greater increase in cardiovascular risk in women than in men so that they should, at the very least, treat women with diabetes as aggressively as they do with their male counterparts.
There is accumulating evidence that the impact of type 2 diabetes on cardiovascular risk differs profoundly between the sexes and is more hazardous for women than for men. Although this may in part reflect a treatment disparity between women and men with diabetes, there are several lines of evidence to suggest that real behavioural and biological sex differences exist which may underpin the excess risk of diabetes-related cardiovascular risk in women. A greater deterioration in risk factor status in women than in men as they transition to diabetes, before the development of overt diabetes, appears to play a crucial role. This greater risk factor decline may in turn be related to women having to put on more weight than men (and thus attain a higher BMI) to develop diabetes. Future work aimed further clarification and understanding of the mechanisms responsible for sex differences in the excess risk of cardiovascular diseases associated with diabetes will be needed to improve the prevention and management of diabetes in clinical practise.
Compliance with Ethics Guidelines
Conflict of Interest
Mark Woodward reports personal fees from Novartis, personal fees from Amgen, from Sanofi, outside the submitted work. Naveed Sattar, Sanne Peters and Rachel Huxley have no competing interest to report.
Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent
This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by the authors.
Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance
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