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#018 - Men's Health Awareness Month - General Health

One fairly well-known stereotype about men is that we don’t take care of our health particularly effectively. In fact, men are a whopping two times as likely as women to leave a gap of at least two years between visits to the doctor. Harvard and Rutgers both reported on a widespread attitude of machismo amongst men that, when present, correlated with a lower rate of seeking medical help. There is also known to be a culture of fear surrounding diagnosis – 20% of respondents in a 2016 survey stated that this anxiety is a major obstacle standing in the way of men seeking treatment. The two phenomena form a dangerous cocktail; one that can (and frequently does) lead men to wait until their symptoms have become literally intolerable until they actually seek professional help. This is obviously painful, preventable, and – in many tragic cases – life-threatening. Such a fact is made even more notable considering that out of the fifteen most common causes of death in the UK men lead over women in fourteen of them (and no, bro – that doesn’t mean we’re winning).

November is Men’s Health Awareness Month, however, so over the next twenty-eight days I’ll be posting an article series concerning a number of different areas of male health, from fitness, to grooming, to mental wellbeing. This first article in the series will be covering a few health issues that men are especially prone to, along with the strategies that you can use to help yourself or your loved ones avoid them. If you’re currently reading this as a man and thinking: “but I don’t need to worry about health” – perhaps as you swig from a hipflask and chew on a rare steak – then stop. Seriously. Your overall health is incredibly important, and you aren’t invincible; no matter what society and other men have told you. Severe health problems can and often do sneak up on anybody – even those who put extra effort into taking care of themselves – so what do you think an exceedingly-unhealthy diet, heavy drinking and the pent-up stress of a mortgage is going to do to your chances of developing them? I can guarantee you, such stoic attitudes change very quickly when faced with a life-altering health problem – you don’t want to suffer such an ailment and also feel like it could've been easily prevented had you taken more care of yourself.

Read on as we put a few of the most common physical health problems men find themselves facing under the microscope. I’ll try and provide a lowdown of the various ways they can negatively-impact your life, and also of the ways you can minimise your chances of suffering from them. But first – hey, put down that cigar… All the way down. That’s right. Good. Now let’s begin.

Cardiovascular disease

Yep; unsurprisingly, heart-related problems lead the charge. Now, obviously such ailments do affect many women as well – it’s also the leading cause of death amongst females – but on average men tend to develop such issues around six years earlier. Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term that can be used to refer to a whole host of distinct yet inextricably-linked health problems such as narrowing of the arteries, arrhythmia (abnormal heartbeat rhythm), thrombosis and severe issues such as stroke, heart failure or attack. Whilst many of these issues can be treated and managed effectively, their effects can be devastating. What’s more, the average age of death relating to cardiovascular disease is only 65 for men – there certainly was a time when such an age would be considered ‘ripe’ and ‘old’, but in the 21st Century it’s rather under-average (by about fifteen years in the UK).

So what can you do about it? Well, fortunately, there are plenty of lifestyle adjustments that can significantly-lower your risk of developing such conditions, even if you’re in the older age bracket. Common advice is to get your cholesterol and blood pressure levels checked at least every five years from the age of 25 – if you find out that they’re high, take steps to control them; you can find out a bit more about how to do so here. Smoking is also a huge risk factor – if you’re partial to tobacco, try and quit. If that’s a struggle then you could also make the switch to vaping; it’s certainly much better for your heart and lungs! Smoking has long been associated with masculinity – something that’s only just beginning to change now – but in reality it’s simply an unhealthy form of dependence upon overpriced and addictive products peddled by huge tobacco corporations that couldn’t care less about you or your wellbeing (not to get overly-political about it). If you hold any illusions that smoking – and the early death that often accompanies it – is cool, try and make an effort to shatter them. Speaking from experience as a former smoker myself, the process of quitting is made much easier if any impression of glamour is dispelled.

The other lifestyle adjustments that are advised for combating cardiovascular disease relate to exercise and nutrition. Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise per day is strongly-recommended, and ideally it should be more if possible! If you work a sedentary job, as many people do in the modern world, finding any excuse to move around is also advised. Want to contact your colleague down the hall? Walk to her office and speak to her in person instead of dropping an email. Need to get home through the apocalyptic hellstorm of rush hour? Why not try cycling instead? Then we come to diet. Reducing the number of saturated and trans-fats we consume is recommended, and so is eating more fruits and vegetables. Pretty common advice, but all too-often it gets ignored. In order to condense this piece, I highly-recommend checking out the article I linked above regarding vegetarianism and cholesterol, which covers the positive impact that a rounded diet can have upon risk of cardiovascular disease. It’s really not hard to be more active and eat more mindfully – the difficult part is making such changes habitual.

Lung cancer

One of the other most common causes of death amongst men is lung cancer – a tragically common, nasty and aggressive disease that spreads incredibly rapidly; so rapidly, in fact, that around half of those diagnosed do not live for over a year longer. It’s difficult to screen; so much so that an effective test isn’t thought to currently exist. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about cancer is that it can appear even without easily-traceable root cause such as smoking, however this is believed to cause 90% of all instances of the disease in the lungs.

As mentioned, quitting smoking is an all-round brilliant idea. It impacts both the heart and the lungs in devastating ways. So rather than continuing to light up those Marlboros until you receive an unexpected diagnosis at the age of fifty, why not make efforts to stop? Cancer may seem like something that only happens to other people, but I guarantee you that many of its victims feel exactly the same up until they receive the devastating news. Smoking may still have a sexy, James Dean-era chic about it for many men, but there’s nothing attractive about spending your premature final days coughing up blood in a hospital bed. Those harrowing, often viscerally unsettling pictures on cigarette packets aren’t there to simply spoil your fun – they’re an honest reminder of what you’re gambling with every time you light up; something it’s your duty to remain aware of, as smoking-related illnesses don’t only effect you.

I truly don’t want to sound preachy, here. As mentioned, I’m an ex-smoker myself – so I do understand what many people enjoy about it and why they find it so hard to stop. However, as this is an article about men’s health issues and how they can be avoided I’m duty-bound to take a hardline stance against tobacco - and in complete honesty it’s also one I believe in. There is too much widespread death and suffering tied up in the harmful attitudes surrounding smoking to gloss over the matter. Quitting is the single most effective way to reduce your chance of developing lung cancer, and there have never been more effective aids to stopping than there are nowadays. At the end of the day, you have every right to believe that smoking is cool and that the potential cancer it might cause is just a great excuse to sell drugs from an RV, but such feelings would almost certainly change upon receiving a terminal diagnosis. Why take the risk?

Prostate cancer

Heart disease and lung cancer afflict both men and women, and have equally-debilitating and dangerous affects in both. Prostate cancer, however, solely-effects men and therefore is crucially-important to include on this list. If you aren’t familiar with your prostate (which would be understandable – it’s an area that many men likely don’t explore too much) it’s a gland located directly behind the testicles, around the size of a walnut, that aids in ejaculation by secreting fluids that partially make-up semen. Cancer of the prostate is very common in men, with around one in six of us being diagnosed with it at some point in our lifetime. The death rates, fortunately, are much lower than that – unlike with lung cancer, only one in thirty-five men will die from the condition.

In truth, most prostate cancers are minimally-aggressive. They don’t spread very fast at all and pose little to no risk of killing their victims. The biggest issue, however, is the lack of a reliable screening test that can differentiate between the low-risk cancers and the much more dangerous ones. Djenaba Joseph, a medical officer at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, states that “screening has never definitively been shown to reduce the chances of dying from prostate cancer”. Reportedly, this is due to the fact that screening picks up all manner of cancers – many of which would pose no risk to your overall health at all, even if they weren’t detected. Treating such cancers can lead to other issues like erectile dysfunction and impotence, creating problems where they were none – problems that can further complicate, with particularly-devastating impacts upon mental health.

What can you do then? It seems the best approach is to simply remain in regular and open communication with your doctor regarding your risk level. It may be a topic you feel awkward bringing up, and you may find the thought of someone sticking a gloved finger into your rectum unpalatable (part of the process for prostate cancer screening, unfortunately) but it’s surely not worth avoiding the subject until it's too late? Allow the experts to advise you – for them, it’ll just be a day on the job.

Type II Diabetes

This comes as little surprise. We’ve already seen that there’s a culture amongst many men that leads males to neglect their health, and this often involves not paying enough heed to how much sugar they’re consuming. Over time, this creeps into the bloodstream and begins to cause big problems. High blood sugar acts similarly to a poison on nerve endings and blood vessels across the body, and can be a debilitating and life-threatening condition if untreated. Many cardiovascular diseases are directly-caused by Type II Diabetes, and it can also cause symptoms like blindness and kidney failure, not to mention occasionally necessitating amputated limbs. With that in mind, it’s vital to remain aware of the risk factors and how to avoid them.

Luckily, it’s a simple solution – just exercise and eat well. Adopting a more active lifestyle and following the recommended GDA for sugar intake is proven to reduce men’s risk of developing Type II Diabetes by up to fifty percent! It’s fairly clean-cut advice that will have positive effects in pretty much all aspects of your life, so why not follow it?

All-in-all, what this article aims to do is remind men that it’s not smart or ‘masculine’ to neglect their health. I’m no medical professional, so my biggest piece of advice is to ensure you’re checking up with a doctor and listening to and following their recommendations on a regular basis. So many of the problems listed here could be avoided with a little proactivity when it comes to staying on top of one’s health. Now, these are – of course – physical ailments that I’ve discussed here. I’ll be devoting an entire article to the rather large elephant in the room that is men’s mental health. Look out for that, along with a couple of (hopefully more positive) articles relating to fitness and beauty too. For now, though, seeing as November is dedicated to the subject, why not make more effort to take care of yourself this month? It doesn’t mean wearing a facemask every night and eating salad bowls twice a day (that’s a routine to incorporate in December). Just be a bit more mindful of how you eat and the amount of exercise you do, and perhaps pay a visit to the GP just to ensure everything’s working as it should be. Simple stuff.

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