Gender/Sex as a Social Determinant of Cardiovascular Risk

Circulation. 2018 Feb 20;137(8):854-864. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.028595.


The social gradient for cardiovascular disease (CVD) onset and outcomes is well established. The American Heart Association's Social Determinants of Risk and Outcomes of Cardiovascular Disease Scientific Statement advocates looking beyond breakthroughs in biological science toward a social determinants approach that focuses on socioeconomic position, race and ethnicity, social support, culture and access to medical care, and residential environments to curb the burden of CVD going forward. Indeed, the benefits of this approach are likely to be far reaching, enhancing the positive effects of advances in CVD related to prevention and treatment while reducing health inequities that contribute to CVD onset and outcomes. It is disappointing that the role of gender has been largely neglected despite being a critical determinant of cardiovascular health. It is clear that trajectories and outcomes of CVD differ by biological sex, yet the tendency for sex and gender to be conflated has contributed to the idea that both are constant or fixed with little room for intervention. Rather, as distinct from biological sex, gender is socially produced. Overlaid on biological sex, gender is a broad term that shapes and interacts with one's cognition to guide norms, roles, behaviors, and social relations. It is a fluid construct that varies across time, place, and life stage. Gender can interact with biological sex and, indeed, other social determinants, such as ethnicity and socioeconomic position, to shape cardiovascular health from conception, through early life when health behaviors and risk factors are shaped, into adolescence and adulthood. This article will illustrate how gender shapes the early adoption of health behaviors in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood by focusing on physical activity, drinking, and smoking behaviors (including the influence of role modeling). We will also discuss the role of gender in psychosocial stress with a focus on trauma from life events (childhood assault and intimate partner violence) and work, home, and financial stresses. We conclude by exploring potential biological pathways, with a focus on autonomic functioning, which may underpin gender as a social determinant of cardiovascular health. Finally, we discuss implications for cardiovascular treatment and awareness campaigns and consider whether gender equality strategies could reduce the burden of CVD for men and women at the population level.

Keywords: cardiovascular diseases; gender identity; risk factors; sex; social determinants of health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Health Behavior*
  • Healthcare Disparities*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Sex Factors
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Stress, Psychological*