Updated: Nov 19
On average, men have a lower life expectancy than women. Usually, 3 to 5 years less in developed economies. But why is this? Like most things in health the answer is complex but understanding why is the first step to taking action to live a longer and healthier life.
Before we dive further into factors specifically relating to men, what are some of the lifestyle factors that shorten our years, that both men and women have to deal with?
Work-related stress is a common factor that impacts both men and women. Long hours, demanding workloads, and job insecurity can all contribute to high levels of stress, which can take a toll on mental and physical health. When people are under stress they are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours such as eating junk food or skipping exercise.
Social pressures are a significant factor that prevent individuals from prioritising their health. Social events often revolve around indulging in unhealthy foods and drinks, which can be difficult to resist.
Lack of time and work-life balance is another common challenge that prevents both men and women from leading a healthy lifestyle. Busy schedules, caregiving responsibilities and other commitments can leave little time for self-care.
Lack of knowledge or understanding about the importance of health also remains a barrier. Many may not be aware of the long-term risks associated with unhealthy habits or, if they are, feel that they are unable to take steps for the better. “I’ll deal with it when I have to, the doctor can sort me out.” although this approach never quite works out.
What other factors are specific to men?
Several factors contribute to the difference in life expectancy between men and women. There are certainly some biological issues that affect men more than their female counterparts. There is some evidence that at the foetal stage men are more affected by maternal stress. In their teens, men are more likely to engage in risky behaviours such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, reckless acts - living life large. The male brain develops more slowly (compared to the female brain) in the areas that deals with decision making and risk. During later life we store more (harmful) visceral fat compared to women, leading to increased risk of chronic illness.
Society often places a premium on masculinity, which can lead us to feel like we need to be strong, self-sufficient and able to handle everything on our own. There can be a misplaced sense of personal resilience or invincibility when it comes to our health. We can have the mindset that without fail we can get healthy by our own initiative, to battle through. Yippee-Ki-Yay! (if you don't recognise the term, beware, movie star bad language and acts of violence) But unlike in the movies, not all battles are won. Health is complex and past experience (late teens or early 20s) in health has no guarantee of conferring benefit in later years. And, similar to our onscreen heroes, men are more likely to work in physically dangerous roles that - unlike in the movies - have a higher rate of mortality.
Some of us just don’t think enough about our health until a lifestyle related health condition, or two, smacks us in the face - or the heart - or the gut. Unfortunately this thinking increases the risk of chronic illnesses such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer; leading causes of death in Singapore (for men our #1 is colorectal cancer) and developed societies across the world.
Men are less likely to seek medical attention when we have health concerns. We may be less likely to undergo routine health screenings, which can detect health issues before they become more serious.
It is difficult for us to admit that we need help or support for our health. This can be especially true when it comes to mental health issues, which are often stigmatised. Our suicide rate is higher. We may be reluctant to seek help or talk about their struggles because we don't want to be perceived as weak or unable to handle things on our own.
While writing this article I have seen parallels with my own health experience. Experiences that many of us might have in common. From being super fit in my early 20s (yes, health invincibility mentality) to a progressive decline in health and corresponding gain in weight and blood pressure in my 30s and 40s. Now, with some consistent healthy living practices I am in a healthier and happier state. I have cultivated healthy habits that have become part of my lifestyle. Mainly regular exercise, healthy eating, a focus on sleep.
And I have gained some softer skills as well. 5 years ago I would not have kept a health journal. Well, in some respects I did without knowing it. It was a training diary to track my exercise, to record details that I didn’t want to input into a device. Then it evolved into something far more useful and beneficial, I recorded how I felt and the occasional stress blurb or list of 'other health goals'. Yup, it became a stealth health journal and I didn't even know it. This is one of the few suggestions I make to all my coaching clients, to keep some form of log, diary or journal. This act of reflection is surprisingly powerful.
Other healthy habits are still a work in progress. This healthy living thing, my practise of it, does not mean that I cannot enjoy life and – at times – indulge. Life and health is now a matter of having found balance, respecting my health needs and reflecting on how I want to feel tomorrow or in the future.
Take five minutes to think about your health, what you want from it and where you can start. It might pay you back by five years of quantity and quality.
Averaging out all these factors, men do indeed die earlier than women. But it is just an average number. What is increasingly important is not lifespan (the length of life) but rather the quality of life towards the end: healthspan. Living in health for as long as possible. There are many factors that can prevent men, and women, from leading a healthy lifestyle. Men face their own challenges, particularly with deeply ingrained stereotypes of what masculinity should be. However, it's important to understand that taking positive steps to promote health or avoid risk are not a sign of weakness. We can all take positive steps towards leading a healthy and fulfilling life.
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