Men’s Health: It may be a man’s world, but this is not true in the world of healthcare

Photograph: Getty Images

Photograph: Getty Images

Tue, Jun 10, 2014, 01:00

Men die younger, are sicker for longer and generally lead more stressed and unhealthy lives than woman virtually everywhere in the world. While Ireland is no different from anywhere else, the good news is that things are improving, and so are the statistics.

Reports published over the past decade point out the health inequalities between men and women in Ireland. First, men die at a significantly younger age than women; at 77, the average life expectancy for Irish men is almost five years less than for women, although there is no biological reason for this. The gap is greatest among men and women in lower socioeconomic groups. The reason men have a lower life expectancy is that they have higher death rates at all ages, and for all leading causes of death.

Men are more likely to die from a wide range of diseases and risky behaviours. Eight out of every 10 people who die by suicide are male. Two-thirds of road traffic fatalities are male.

As for cancer, men are almost twice as likely to die of colorectal and lung cancer, three times as likely to die of bladder cancer and 1.6 times more at risk of skin cancer. And while women are clearly more at risk of breast cancer, the chance of a woman developing breast cancer, at one in 10, is less than the one in eight chance a man has of developing prostate cancer.

Worrying

While many diseases are preventable, the fact that men are more likely to have some of the conditions that are becoming more prevalent is worrying. Men, for example, are more likely to be overweight or obese than women, and obese men are five times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.

What is the cause of this inequality? Is it because of what men (or women) do, or don’t do, in respect of their health, or do external factors play a role? Probably a bit of both, but there is a limited amount of Irish research.

As the Men’s Health report published a decade ago noted, international research suggests that compared with women, men have limited contact with GPs, are reluctant users of primary-care services and often present late in the course of an illness. The report refers to the prevalence of “traditional values and attitudes” towards gender.

“Boys and young men continue to be socialised to appear in control, to be strong and to take risks; thus reinforcing their exposure to illness and accidental deaths.”

According to the Men’s Health Forum, “since sickness may be seen as an expression of weakness, many men may decide not to seek help and, instead, present a stoical, brave and unflinching front to the outside world”.

Meanwhile, Movember, the charity that raises money for men’s health issues, blames men’s poorer health on factors such as a lack of awareness of health issues, “men not openly discussing their health and how they’re feeling”, men engaging in risky activities that threaten their health as well as stigmas surrounding mental health.

But the health system hasn’t traditionally galvanised itself around men’s health matters in the same way as it has tackled women’s health.

The very successful Breastcheck programme has contributed to significant improvement in breast cancer detection and treatment rates, but there is no equivalent for prostate cancer, which is more common.

Happily, the state of Irish men’s health is beginning to improve. The life-expectancy gap is narrowing and the trends are moving in the right direction for a variety of indicators: more physical activity, less smoking, lower alcohol consumption, and fewer suicides.

Dr Noel Richardson of the Men’s Health Institute at Carlow IT points to a growing awareness among men of health issues, and a grassroots “social movement” towards greater awareness of mental health.

“The GAA is an example of an organisation that has embraced the concept of health in the broadest sense through the formation of health and wellbeing committees and the role of prominent players in speaking out about these issues,” he says.

Some of this improved health behaviour is recession-related, and most seems to be here to stay, so there is cause for optimism the improvement in men’s health will continue. Paul Cullen is Health Correspondent

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