On May 31st, 1994, President Clinton signed National Men’s Health Week into existence. Why? Because men were dying, on average, seven years earlier than women. Because men were 150 percent less likely than women to visit a doctor for preventive care. And, finally, because many of the conditions ending men’s lives could be prevented or successfully treated with early detection.
Today, 21 years later, men continue to lag behind women in seeking healthcare. They continue to be less likely to visit a doctor for annual exams and preventive services. They are 40 percent more likely to skip recommended screenings. Although their life expectancy has improved, men still die five years earlier than women, on average.
Sure, some of this may be due to genetics. Even in the womb, a male fetus is at greater risk for health complications than a female. The infant mortality rate is also higher in males. However, researchers believe that this should only account for one year of difference in total life expectancy, as it was in 1920.
But as medical technology advanced and research sped ahead, it seems as if men’s health has not kept pace. Psychologists and sociologists have proposed many theories to explain why this has happened and what we can do to turn it around.
Men receive fewer guidelines about health screenings
After the 18th birthday, men transition from the pediatrician’s office with very little instruction about how to manage their care as adults. While women are advised to complete regular gynecological exams, men are generally left to make their own decisions. This may explain why 36 percent of men reported that they only visit the doctor when they are extremely sick, according to a 2007 survey from the American Academy of Family Physicians. In the same survey, 23 percent said that they were healthy and did not need to see a doctor.
This is problematic because many of the top health risks for men – including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes – develop over time without any noticeable symptoms. In early stages, men are unlikely to feel sick. However, simple screenings can reveal issues with blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. If men collaborate with their providers in understanding and managing their risks, they have a better chance of stopping or halting disease progression.
To address the lack of information about regular check-ups for men, the Men’s Health Network has published this guide to exams and screenings.
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Men have difficulty communicating symptoms to providers
Since men tend to drift away from the doctor’s office after turning 18, this may explain why 50 percent of men from ages 18 to 50 do not have a regular source of healthcare. Without any familiarity or relationship with their providers, men often have trouble discussing certain symptoms.
According to Blue Cross Blue Shield, here are some of the most common symptoms men neglect to mention:
- An itchy rash anywhere on the body
- Getting up multiple times at night to pee
- Finding blood on the toilet paper or bowl
- Erectile dysfunction
Hiding these symptoms can be dangerous as they can signify much greater health problems. The last three items, for instance, are all signs of prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer in men, followed by lung cancer and colorectal cancer.
The American Psychological Association also reports that men tend to have better relationships with providers they view as teammates. This allows men to feel more involved and in control of their care. To enter this healthcare conversation prepared, men can take time to understand their risks and research strategies for improving their health.
Providers can also empower patients by inviting them to guide the conversation and to collaborate on treatment plans.
Men live with greater expectations to be strong and self-reliant
Many research findings show that cultural and societal factors result in poor health outcomes in men. “Be strong.” “Tough it out.” “Walk it off.” Boys hear these messages throughout childhood. Our society often teaches men to suppress their emotions and to rely on themselves instead of seeking help from others.
Not only are men who believe in certain masculine ideals more likely to ignore or endure painful symptoms and to self-diagnose and medicate, but they also tend to clam up about their anxieties and emotional needs.
This leads us to another crisis in men’s health: depression and suicide.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, men tend to exhibit different symptoms and experience more shame about their depression, thus hiding the condition. This makes it harder for providers and family members to recognize warning signs.
For men, depression often shows up in ways other than sadness. Instead, common symptoms include anger, irritability, recklessness, and violent behavior. Men are also more likely to have physical symptoms, such as sleep disorders, digestive problems, headaches, joint pain, and chest pain. Substance abuse is common as well.
In some men, depression can result in far more devastating outcomes. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among U.S. adults ages 18 to 65, and men account for 79 percent of all deaths by suicide. Women may be twice as likely to experience depression and also more likely to report suicidal thoughts, but men are nearly four times more likely to take their own life. Currently, the suicide rate is highest among men over age 75.
Recognizing the signs of depression can be the first step toward getting appropriate help.
The National Institute for Mental Health asserts that “it takes courage to ask for help.” Masculinity can take many forms. Strength can also mean being strong enough to confront stigma, strong enough to admit a problem, and strong enough to make a change.
Take action for men’s health
June 15 to 21 is Men’s Health Week. This year, you can help spread awareness by sharing the top health challenges that men face. Take a step toward improving your health, or help a male friend or family member by reminding him to get screened or suggesting a good health resource.
If you’re celebrating a man in your life this Father’s Day, motivate him toward better health by telling him what you love about him and why you care about his well-being.