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Objectives. A body of evidence indicates that women value relationship-centred aspects of well-being more than men do, while men value autonomy-centred aspects of well-being more than women do. The current study examined whether gender moderates relations between autonomy and positive relationships and interleukin-6 (IL-6), a cytokine associated with inflammatory processes. Aspects of well-being consistent with gender-linked values were expected to be most health protective such that positive relationships would predict lower IL-6 only or more strongly in women, and autonomy would predict lower IL-6 only or more strongly in men.

Methods. In the first study, a sample of 119 older adults (55% female) living in Kentucky were visited in their homes for interviews and blood draws. In the second study, a sample of 1,028 adults (45% female) living across the United States underwent a telephone interview followed by a visit to a research centre for blood draws.

Results. In the Kentucky sample, autonomy was quadratically related to IL-6 such that moderate autonomy predicted higher IL-6; this effect was stronger in men. In the US national sample, more positive relationships were associated with lower IL-6 in women only. When the national sample was restricted to match the Kentucky sample, moderate autonomy was again associated with higher IL-6 in men only.

Conclusions. Results provide preliminary evidence for gender-specific effects of positive relationships and autonomy on IL-6. Further work is needed to establish the generalizability of these effects to different ages, cultures, and health statuses.

Statement of contribution

What is already known on this subject? A host of previous work indicates that women value relationship-centred aspects of well-being more than men, while men value autonomy-centred aspects of well-being more than women. Further, there is some evidence suggesting that well-being consistent with gender-linked values is more health protective, such that relationships are more protective for women than for men, while autonomy is more protective for men than for women.

What does this study add We provide preliminary support for the hypothesis that gender moderates the associations of autonomy and positive relationships with IL-6. Specifically, higher levels of positive relationships may be associated with lower IL-6 in women only, whereas moderate levels of autonomy may be associated with higher IL-6 in males only, particularly among older adults.