Gender role differences in cardiovascular reactivity
Gender differences in the incidence and prevalence of cardiovascular disease (CVD) are well documented and indicate that younger men are at greater risk than younger women. One psychophysiological mechanism whereby gender may contribute differentially to CVD is by altering cardiovascular reactivity (CVR); i.e., acute cardiovascular adjustments to mental stress. The CVR hypothesis states that individual differences in the magnitude and patterning of CVR may influence the development of CVD. Gender has been shown to affect CVR such that men usually have greater CVR to stressors that are attributed to masculine traits, although findings have been mixed. The variability in findings may be explained, in part, by gender-role differences (i.e., the degree of agentic or communal traits). In that regard, it has been hypothesized that when individuals are placed in gender-relevant situations that are congruent with their own gender role, they will experience heightened CVR. More specifically, individuals with a greater degree of agentic traits are more likely to have greater CVR in situations where agentic traits are perceived to be necessary or important. Likewise, individuals with more communal traits are more likely to have greater CVR in situations where communal traits are perceived to be necessary or important.
To test these hypotheses, this study examined the cardiovascular stress responses of 93 healthy young men who completed a measure of self-reported gender-role, thus providing continuous measures of agentic and communal traits. Participants recalled two stressful life events designed to engage agentic versus communal gender-role traits while their cardiovascular responses were measured. Cardiovascular measures included blood pressure, heart rate, cardiac pre-ejection period, stroke index, cardiac index, and total peripheral resistance. Task engagement was also assessed. Increases in measures of CVR and engagement during the tasks (as compared to the immediately preceding baseline periods) indicated that participants were adequately engaged during the interviews.
Results indicated that individuals with greater agentic traits had smaller systolic and diastolic blood pressure responses during both the agentic and communal interviews that may be explained by concomitant trends toward decreased stroke index. Yet, participants with higher agentic traits reported being more engaged during the agentic interview. Communal participants displayed longer pre-ejection periods during the agentic interview, although no associated blood pressure responses were found.
Overall, the proposed study hypotheses were not supported by the data. Indeed, a possible buffering effect for agentic traits was found for cardiovascular functioning. However, there was a relative absence of relation of communal traits to CVR. These findings differ from several earlier studies and may be attributable to major differences in research design. The present study improved upon prior research by providing a continuous measure of gender role and utilizing tasks with better real-world relevance. The findings of this study suggest that agentic traits may be adaptive in helping healthy young men cope with stressful situations and therefore display attenuated CVR. Additional research is needed to explore the specific components of agency that may be adaptive across gender and gender role, and to identify associated coping strategies related to gender-relevant stressors. Results suggest that gender role may not be the best explanatory factor in relations of gender to CVR and CVD.