Making Men’s Health a Priority

Today in the United States, the life expectancy at birth for men is nearly 5.5 years less than the life expectancy for women (75.1 years vs. 80.5 years). In North Dakota, the disparity in life expectancy between men and women is even greater. At birth, men in North Dakota are predicted to live an average of 77.2 years, while women are predicted to live an average of 85.0 years, generating a 7.8-year difference. Part of the reason for this gap is that men tend to prioritize their health less than many women. Nationwide, men are more likely than women to engage in unhealthy and unsafe behavior such as excessive drinking, smoking, and driving under the influence, and yet less likely to visit a healthcare provider or adopt preventive health measures such as wearing sun protection or eating a healthy diet.

Research suggests that this pattern of behavior may be due in part to generations of men being socialized under the masculine “ideals” which include stoicism, competitiveness, feelings of invincibility as well as a reluctance to ask for help for mental or physical needs. Furthermore, when men do suspect a health problem, they often delay visiting a healthcare provider until the health issue is quite advanced, at which point they also tend to minimize symptoms and their impacts. This contributes to men being diagnosed with diseases in more advanced stages, which can make them harder to treat. As a result, men die younger—and in greater numbers—of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and many other conditions, when compared to women.

Cancer is a group of more than 100 diseases characterized by out-of-control cell growth. Risk factors for developing cancer include a combination of inherited genetic factors and environmental factors such as smoking, sun exposure, obesity, and environmental pollutants. As mentioned above, men are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors that contribute to the environmental risk factors that put them at increased risk for disease. Furthermore, current research suggests that environmental factors may play a more significant role in causing cancer than genetics. However, while regular visits to a healthcare provider and cancer screenings are always recommended, they are especially important for people with a family history of cancer. Unhealthy behavior paired with the tendency to delay seeking care has likely contributed to the fact that North Dakota men were diagnosed with and died of cancer at higher rates than women for nearly all cancer types between 2014-2018. According to the ND Cancer Registry, during that period men died at a rate of 174.6 per 100,000 men, compared to women who died at a rate of 126.6 per 100,000 women. The cancer types identified in order as the leading causes of death for men due to cancer include lung, prostate, colon, and pancreatic.

Many of these deaths could have been prevented with lifestyle changes and/or earlier detection. Lifestyle changes include getting more physical activity and eating a healthy and balanced diet consisting of plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and less sugar, salt, fats. It is also important to minimize, if not eliminate smoking and alcohol consumption. Additionally, it is essential to visit a healthcare provider and dentist regularly instead of waiting until there is a problem. This is especially important for men with a known family history of cancer. Regular health care allows cancer to be detected earlier stages; thereby, increasing the odds survival and improving health outcomes.

We can all play a role for the men in our lives we care about by promoting healthy behaviors and encouraging them to take even the smallest symptoms seriously and discuss them with their health care provider.

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