Updated: Mar 3, 2020
Thursday, 23 Jan 2020 11:20 AM MYT
BY PETER BAKER
KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 23 — Men’s health is unnecessarily poor.
Not just in Malaysia — where women live five years longer than men — but throughout the world.
Average global life expectancy for men lags behind women’s by four years and there is not a single country where men live longer than women.
Men are not genetically programmed to die young and have the potential to live long lives.
In some very wealthy neighbourhoods in a few countries, male life expectancy has reached over 90 years.
This shows the potential for improvement for all men.
Much of the health sex gap between men and women can be explained by smoking, alcohol consumption and other risky behaviours.
In Malaysia, 43 per cent of men smoke tobacco when compared to 1 per cent of women and, on average, men drink five times as much alcohol.
About 45 per cent of male deaths globally are caused by unhealthy lifestyles, according to the US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Men also delay seeking help from primary care services, including routine dental and eye health checks.
They also often avoid psychological therapies for mental health problems.
The way men use — or fail to use — health services means that many problems are diagnosed later by which time they can be harder to treat.
If men took better care of their own health, more would undoubtedly live in better health for longer.
So what’s stopping them?
One important explanation is that men are brought up to act tough and not ask for help.
This is particularly the case for mental health problems.
The international men’s health organisation Movember recently conducted a survey of 4,000 men aged 18 to 75 in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
It found that 58 per cent of men aged 18 to 34 feel that society expects them to be “emotionally strong and to show no weakness.”
While 77 per cent of those surveyed believed that talking about problems helps, more than half admitted that they choose not to speak up.
Furthermore, 38 per cent said that their reason for keeping quiet is the fear of coming across as “unmanly” or “less of a man.”
Other research has shown that those men who conform most closely to “traditional masculinity” – being self-sufficient, acting tough, being physically attractive, having sexual prowess, and using aggression to resolve conflicts — are much more likely to take risks with their health and avoid using services.
These “macho” attitudes have contributed to lower “health literacy” levels in men.
Health literacy is about the ability of individuals to access, understand and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health.
British men are twice as likely as women to have limited health literacy, according to one study.
Researchers have also found that men tend to have lower levels of knowledge of specific health issues.
For example, they have lower levels of awareness of high blood pressure and are less able to provide an accurate estimate of the alcohol drinking guideline for their own sex.
There is another important reason for the problems with men’s health.
Health policies and services have not taken men into account.
Only three countries, including Australia, Brazil and Ireland have specific national men’s health policies.
Even though it is clear that men have particularly poor health, doctors and other health professionals have not reached out to men and designed services in ways that make them easier for men to use.
Many services are open only when men are in work or commuting, for example.
The good news is that we now know how to turn things around for men.
Health policies, including national men’s health policies that recognise the needs of men would help to accelerate and focus action.
Because men are the biggest consumers of tobacco, alcohol and sugar, tougher controls and taxes would reduce their consumption.
Health services should be made more accessible and action must be taken in schools to improve men’s health literacy.
Sporting and other “male-friendly” venues can be used to reach out to even more men.
In Europe, a programme called EuroFIT is attracting men to courses on healthy eating and physical activity held at top-flight soccer stadiums.
Employers can also support their male workers to lead healthier lives.
One very effective Canadian workplace programme aimed at men, POWERPLAY, focuses on healthy eating, physical activity and well-being and includes team-work and competition.
In one part of the programme, the ‘Northern Circle Route Challenge’, participants are asked to accumulate enough steps to walk “virtually” around Northern British Columbia, a distance of about four million steps or 2,775 km.
Better health and wellbeing would not only be good for men, it would also benefit their partners, children, friends, communities and workplaces.
It would, moreover, save an awful lot of money, including medical care costs and lost productivity at work.
It is a very clear win-win.