Men in the United States die younger on average and live unhealthier lives than women, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While this has been the case for a century or longer, the gender disparity in life expectancy is greater than ever – women born in 2015 can expect to live five more years on average than men born the same year.
That said, statistics show that people in the U.S. can expect to live a good, long time, regardless of gender – the CDC estimates the average life expectancy for Americans born in 2015 was 78.8. This was 31 years longer than average life expectancy for Americans in 1900.
That improvement is reflected in the results of the CDC’s 2015 National Health Interview Survey, which showed that 88% of men and 87% of women believed they are in “excellent, very good or good” health.
Yet, the fact that men are at a greater risk for early death or generally poor health has a detrimental effect on American society. Virtually no facet of the culture is untouched by the health risks men face, which is why groups such as the Movember Foundation and the Men’s Health Network have made it their mission to raise awareness about threats to men’s health and to raise money for research.
Perhaps no societal pillar is affected more than the economy.
According to research published by the American Journal of Men’s Health in November 2011, annual costs associated with premature death and morbidity in men exceed $140 billion for federal, state and local governments. Men’s health problems also cost U.S. employers and society, in general, more than $150 billion in direct medical payments and lost productivity.
In addition, men’s health trouble can create an added burden for relatives, often a spouse or life partner, who must become a long-term caretaker and cope with lost income associated with illness or disability.
For men’s health advocates, the first step to improving the numbers is to identify the health risks men face and determine how best to mitigate those risks.
Men’s Health Risks Identified
With a few notable exceptions, the health risks that threaten the quality of life for men are the same as those that affect women. For example, heart disease is the leading killer of men and of women, and some forms of cancer, such as lung cancer and skin cancer, affect men and women at equal or nearly equal rates.
As of 2015, according to the CDC’s 2017 U.S. Health Report, these 10 medical conditions or illnesses are responsible for the most deaths among men:
- Heart disease (24.5% of deaths)
- Cancer (23.4%)
- Unintentional injuries (6.4%)
- Chronic lower-respiratory diseases (5.2%)
- Stroke (4.2%)
- Diabetes (3.1%)
- Suicide (2.5%)
- Alzheimer’s (2.1%)
- Influenza and pneumonia (2.0%)
- Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (1.9%)
Of these 10 causes of death, heart disease is the most costly, accounting for $1 of every $6 spent in the American healthcare system in 2010. About 335,000 American men were killed by heart disease in 2015, according to the CDC, significantly more than the 298,000 women who died of heart disease that year.
Meanwhile, cancer killed nearly 314,000 men and 282,000 women in 2015. Nearly twice as many men (92,919) as women (53,652) died of unintentional injury in 2015.
Nearly 34,000 men committed suicide in 2015.
To combat the health disparity between men and women, the Movember Foundation focuses on an annual fundraiser that encourages men and women to celebrate the mustache as a symbol of good health. The way it works is, people pledge donations throughout the month of November, during which men grow and groom their mustaches in an effort to initiate conversations about men’s health.
The Movember program began in Australia in 2003. By 2015, the most recent year funding figures are available, more than 5 million participants had helped the Movember Foundation raise $710 million for men’s health initiatives.
Movember’s mission focuses specifically on three health threats: prostate cancer, testicular cancer and mental health.
By the year 2030, the foundation wants to help:
- Reduce by 50% the life expectancy gap between men and women
- Reduce by 25% the number of men dying prematurely
- Reduce by 50% the number of men dying of prostate cancer
- Reduce by 50% the number of men facing serious prostate cancer treatment side effects
The goals of the Men’s Health Network align with those of the Movember Foundation. The network is a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., and dedicated to raising awareness about men’s health issues.
Its effort focuses on education. In 2012, the Men’s Health Network hosted more than 40 healthcare thought leaders for a round-table event intended to identify sociological factors in men’s health risks and to find solutions.
Through that conversation and ongoing sharpening of its message, the Men’s Health Network developed the following strategy to meet its goal of saving “men’s lives by reducing the premature mortality of men and boys”:
- Create national education programs that promote awareness of health issues and identify best practices for prevention, violence prevention and addiction treatment.
- Create comprehensive screening and awareness programs.
- Develop a data collection system that provides a clearinghouse for men’s health information.
- Recruit and maintain a network of healthcare providers that are focused on men’s health.
- Encourage an improved government response to men’s health issues.
Deeper Knowledge, Better Habits, Healthier Men
It will come as no surprise to nurses and physicians that in addition to inherited traits, lifestyle choices are major factors in men’s health. Obesity, a sedentary life, over-indulgence in alcohol and participation in dangerous or life-threatening activities are risk factors for men’s health problems.
DNA mapping and genetic testing are relatively new tools for medical professionals to combat disease and illness. While no one can change his or her genetic makeup, the National Human Genome Research Institute explains that improvements in the accuracy of genetic testing can:
- Diagnose diseases
- Pinpoint genetic factors in the development of disease
- Provide a general prognosis for potential severity of an illness or disease
- Help determine the medicinal treatment needed
- Discover genetic risk factors
- Discover genetic risk factors that could affected your offspring
- Screen newborn babies for conditions that could be treatable right away
Of course, knowing that one is genetically susceptible to a particular medical condition does not necessarily prevent it. So, the Mayo Clinic recommends that the best way to mitigate the health risks men face is to make wise lifestyle choices.
- No smoking – nicotine in tobacco is addictive and a potentially dangerous stimulant that increases blood pressure; tar and other ingredients in cigarette smoke can cause cancer and other major health problems.
- Eat well and maintain a healthy weight – eat food that contains the proper amounts of nutrients, vitamins and minerals and is low in saturated fats and sodium; track weight and maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI).
- Exercise regularly – a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and certain types of cancer; it also leads to potential obesity, which increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
- Consume alcohol only in moderation – a rule of thumb is no more than two drinks per day if you are younger than 65, and one drink per day if you are older than that; over-consumption of alcohol can lead to liver cancer and high blood pressure.
- Be mindful of stress – stress can contribute to depression, which is a major factor in the 33,000-plus suicides among American men annually.
The Mayo Clinic also notes that men, more often than women, avoid routine physicals and/or visiting healthcare providers when they are ill. Monitoring health signals and responding quickly to abnormalities can add years to life.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine lists the following exams, screenings and tests as vital for helping men mitigate health risks:
- Blood pressure measurement – check annually if no hypertension has been diagnosed; those with chronic high blood pressure should monitor theirs daily or as often as a physician suggests.
- Cholesterol screening – check at least every five years, or more often if you have been diagnosed with hypertension, heart disease or other cardio-pulmonary condition.
- Diabetes screening – check every three years, or more often if diabetes is in your family history or if you have been diagnosed as pre-diabetic.
- Colon cancer screening – if 50 or younger, you should be checked if colon cancer is in your family history; older than 50, all men should be tested annually.
- Prostate cancer screening – most men 45 and older should be screened for prostate cancer, either through a physical exam or a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test once annually.
- Testicular exam – testicular cancer is the most common cancer among men 40 and younger. Anyone with TC in his family history should be screened through a blood test for potential tumor markers at least every five years.
Common-sense lifestyle choices and regular physical exams with important medical screenings can do much to curb the gender disparity in life expectancy. The challenge for physicians and nurses is to communicate this message to patients, and that means staying educated about the unique healthcare challenges that threaten American men of all ages and ethnicities.