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Women Handle Stressful Life Events Better Than Men


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By Margarita Nahapetyan

The experts at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem indicate that women can handle stressful situations much better than men.

According to a new scientific study, individuals have different reactions to strain, mostly due to their genetic differences. Another important factor that generates varying responses to factors associated with stress, is the gender of a person. Some people appear to be resilient in accepting tough and challenging situations, whereas others simply lose control over them, developing a range of serious physical and mental disorders. Many previous studies have shown that the way in which the brain and body adjust to acute and chronic stress are critical for physical and mental health. What is more, according to a recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO), stress-related death is going to be the second leading cause of mortality all across the world over the next 20 years.

The investigators at the HUJ have highlighted the fact that genetics are an important factor and are mostly responsible for the way in which people react to stress. It has been estimated that the legacy of parents determines the levels of the stress hormone cortisol inside the bodies of their kids by as much as 62 per cent. In spite the fact that the number is more than convincing, and worthy of attention, not much investigation has been carried out on this matter.

In the new study, using the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), the scientists collected and analyzed saliva samples of 97 university students, when they were asked to play a game in which they had to pretend looking for work and had to convince the interviewer in 5 minutes to hire them for a job. The interview was conducted in front of the three straight-faced judges, and also included a microphone and camera. Also, the experiment included second part, where the participants were given a mental math task in which they were asked to count backwards and aloud from 1,687 in multiples of 13 very quickly and accurately. In case of a mistake, the subjects were asked to start from the beginning, which made a task very complicated and stressful.

Before and after mouthwash samples were collected, the experts analyzed the participants' levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and found that in all of them, it has increased after they underwent the interviews. The experts also looked at the levels of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene, which supports the development and differentiation of brain cells. The BDNF gene is characterized by a variant that codes for either the valine (Val) or methionine (Met) amino acids. Individuals carry two copies of each gene, with the Val variant being more common. In the experiment, the students who carried 2 copies of the VAL variant - Val/Val - were compared in their cortisol response to those individuals who carried 1 copy of the Val and one of the Met -Val/Met.

After a thorough analysis, the researchers found that male participants with the BDNF Val/Val genotype were more likely to be stressed out by the events, compared to female participants with the BDNF Val/Met amino-acid combination. Overall, the study found that men showed greater stress during the experiment than did women.

The scientists believe that their findings will be helpful when inderstanding how stress and other psycho-neurological disorders may be the result of a combination of stressful life events and genetic factors.The experiments were conducted at the Hebrew University Department of Psychology and at the Aaron Beare Research Laboratories at Herzog Hospital by Idan Shalev, a doctoral student of Hebrew University Psychology Professor Richard Ebstein, and in collaboration with Dr. Marsha Kaitz of the Department of Psychology.

The results of the new investigation, were published and detailed in the latest online issue of the scientific journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

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