‘I say no a lot more — something I should have realised a long time before Parkinson’s’

From good habits worth prioritising for solid physical health to mental wellbeing: managing a debilitating illness

A variety of personal, societal and policy factors lie behind why men, on average, live four years less than women in Ireland, but there are things men can do to improve the odds of a longer life for themselves.

Men’s Health Week (June 12th-18th) will be highlighting measures that could reduce preventable health problems in males of all ages. A 46-page booklet, Action Man — 10 top tips for men’s health, is one of the new resources produced by the HSE in conjunction with Men’s Health Forum in Ireland.

Noel Richardson is director of the National Centre for Men’s Health in South East Technological University (SETU). The 58-year-old represented Ireland as a middle-distance runner in the early 1990s and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 12 years ago. He lives in Kilkenny with his wife Niamh (neé Murphy), also a former international runner. They have four adult daughters, the eldest of whom, Aoibhe Richardson, was a member of the Irish women’s team that won bronze at the European Cross Country championships last December.

It is important for him to manage stress, to avoid aggravating his symptoms. “I say ‘no’ to a lot more than I used to —something I should have realised a long time before Parkinson’s.”


What habits do you prioritise for physical health?

Exercise is the main one. I find it really beneficial in terms of physical health but also for mental health. I run four to five miles (6-8km) three times a week, quite slowly at this stage. But I think the latent fitness level I had all my life has stood me in good stead with Parkinson’s. Without wanting to sound cocky, I think I can maintain a higher level of physical function than I might have otherwise. I am programmed to run; my body does it automatically and I find it really helpful.

I cycle a good bit as well with a couple of pals, and I walk. I do something every day — run, walk or cycle.

I generally eat a healthy diet — that would have been part of my routine as an athlete. I eat small amounts in moderation. Since my diagnosis, I am in regular contact with my GP and consultant and have a good relationship with both of them.

What helps keep you mentally well?

With Parkinson’s there has obviously been a challenge transitioning from being a healthy 46-year-old to having a condition that is more associated with older people. That took a toll initially. Over time I have managed to get my head around that. The key now is to manage workload and stress as my capacity is somewhat reduced but I am still functioning at a good level.

I need support to acknowledge that vulnerability, which I would not have been aware of before. Just being in tune with my body and knowing not to ignore what I call “red flags”— becoming stressed or feeling low mood.

I think social contact is really important for mental health, so going for a pint every now and again with friends, or going for a meal. I am involved in coaching athletics too, at Kilkenny City Harriers.

I have learned to be much gentler on myself. I think I was always quite competitive and driven, whether it was sports or work. With Parkinson’s you have to adapt and recalibrate expectations and goals.

Are there wellbeing measures you aspire to adopt, or unhealthy habit you want to stop?

I keep saying I would love to take up meditation or yoga or something like that but I have been saying it for years and I haven’t done it yet. I am a bit of a one-trick pony with the running: I’ve always done it and love it. But with Parkinson’s slowness and stiffness is an issue so it is something I would like to prioritise more in the future.

I also tend to spend long times at the laptop instead of breaking up that time by walking. Uninterrupted sitting isn’t good for anybody, especially for somebody with Parkinson’s, so that’s another vice I could address; taking movement breaks, even for a minute or two.

What societal changes would you most like to see to support men’s health in Ireland?

We have seen a lot more men talking out about health, particularly mental health, in the last few years — people from media, entertainment, sport. But I wish we would see a bit more of that at a political level.

There is a lot of emphasis on jobs, employment and other kinds of political activity, seeing men as economic units. I would like to see politicians talking about health more and demonstrating leadership in that broader sense of the word, by being advocates for their own health and talking more about the challenges they face. It could change the culture a little, to men being more accepting of their vulnerability and being more proactive in managing their own health.

I also think the workplace, where men spend a lot of time, is an important setting to target men’s health. There is an opportunity there to develop good habits; to make men more aware of what they should be looking out for as they get older; to promote peer support. We are doing some work with Cairde at the moment, which is a suicide prevention project in the construction sector.

There is also a need to challenge the culture of violence among young men. Tolerance of more insidious violence is also toxic. Sports is a good example. In rugby there’s a bravado about how hard the hits are and as a society, we valorise that performance of aggression. Let’s be honest, it is violence in lots of ways. We are sending out mixed messages of what’s acceptable and what’s not. The fact that it’s between white lines on a field doesn’t make it okay for violence to take place.

A lot of men are doing well. But there are particular subgroups of men such as farmers, Traveller men, construction workers, who account for a large proportion of the overall life expectancy differential between men and women. I think sometimes services and programmes are not designed in a way that they will reach those groups most in need.

Overall men’s health outcomes have improved considerably over the last 20 years: life expectancy has increased; smoking rates have come down; mortality rates from cancer and cardiovascular disease have reduced, so there are lots of positives as well.

  • To kick-off Men’s Health Week, a webinar takes place on Monday, June 12th at noon, with guest speaker Dr Mark Rowe, author of The Vitality Mark. See here for details
Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting