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Headaches linked to gender

Women are 15 percent more likely than men to get tension headaches, a study found. And the more education people have, the more headaches they get.

The study from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health was published in Tuesday's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association and looked at the routine headaches that cause rubberband-like pressure.Scientists surveyed 13,345 people by telephone in Baltimore County in 1993 and 1994.

Women were about 15 percent more likely than men to have tension headaches. Those with more education had a significantly greater number of headaches, reaching a peak in graduate school with almost 49 percent of both men and women suffering from occasional tension headaches.

The study's lead author, Dr. Brian Schwartz, said it's not clear why sex and education seem to play a role.

"No one really knows the cause of tension-type headaches," said Schwartz, a professor in the division of occupational and environmental health at Johns Hopkins. "But the increasing amount with education might suggest that work-related factors have a role."

Schwartz speculated that those with more education may be more likely to be peering at computer screens for long hours, and that can cause headaches.

And he suggested that hormones might play a role in tension headaches in women. Doctors already know women are more likely to get migraine headaches, starting with the onset of menstruation.

Dr. Merle Diamond, associate director of Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, said women are generally more open about health complaints, which might account for the higher number of women reporting tension headaches.

What to do about tension headaches is also a mystery. Most sufferers simply take over-the-counter pain relievers. But Diamond recommends that her patients exercise and have a regular sleep schedule.

Among the study's findings:

- About 40 percent of people have one tension headache a month, and the average is two or three a month.

- About 43 percent of those who suffered occasional headaches said that their work suffered when they had a headache. About 8 percent reported lost workdays as a result of headaches.

- The number of headaches increased until age 30, leveled off through age 40, and declined in the 50s.

Kathleen Stephansen, an economist, knows what makes her head throb. "When you're a working mother, you've got a lot on your mind," said Stephansen, a vice president at a New York City securities company and mother of two.

Marilyn vos Savant, a magazine columnist billed as the smartest woman in the world, said that even with two strikes against her, being a woman and being well-educated, her head doesn't feel squeezed. But she was not surprised by the findings.

"Knowledge about what's going on in the world certainly causes as many headaches as it cures," vos Savant said.

Then again, higher education often correlates to higher income, "and higher income correlates with higher income tax," she said. "Maybe someone should do a study that relates headaches to the amount of income tax you pay."