Why are men notoriously bad at looking after their health? “That’s the six million dollar question,” says Dr Noel Richardson, Director at the National Centre for Men’s Health.
tudies show that when compared to women they are more likely to die younger, avoid health screenings, and make poor lifestyle choices such as binge drinking.
The gap is narrowing, according to research released last week as part of International Men’s Health Week, and younger men in particular are speaking out more about the importance of physical and mental health. However, Dr Richardson says there is still some way to go.
“Traditional roles of masculinity were such that men haven’t sought help easily. They are taught to be strong, tough, resilient and to not show vulnerability. It is picked up from an early age,” he says.
As part of his work, he encourages men not to ignore niggling symptoms out of “fear, denial or a ‘head in the sand’ mentality that things will get better tomorrow”.
He says he has learned “we have to work with men where they’re at”, which means aligning the reasons for good health with their priorities,
“We do a lot of work with farmers and one of the key messages that works is when we remind them that a farmer’s health is the most important cog in the wheel — without it their livelihood is compromised.”
He says the irony is that men routinely make smart choices when it comes to their livelihood, but struggle with self-care.
“If a farmer is worried about an animal’s health they will call the vet straight away, they won’t think twice. A businessman will identify a problem in their business and see who could provide the expertise to sort it. The same mentality should apply to their health.”
A look at the numbers supports his concerns. According to the Irish Men’s Health Report Card 2020, men have a shorter life expectancy (80.5) compared to women (84.1), they generally work longer hours (52.8pc of men work 40 hours a week compared to 24.7pc of women) and live more years of bad health (68.4 healthy years compared to 70.4 in women).
Unlike smoking, which has fallen from 31pc in 2007 to 19pc in 2019, alcohol is a major concern. Of the men who said they drink, 54pc report that they binge (six or more standard measures) on a typical occasion.
“This is a real cause for concern. Compared to other European countries the frequency here isn’t necessarily that high, but the way in which Irish people drink, that’s concerning,” Dr Richardson says.
He says “the indirect ways that alcohol (affects men’s health) is insidious.”
Poor lifestyle choices are a big contributor to blocked arteries and the proportion of male deaths from ischaemic heart disease in Ireland far outstrips women. In 2019 men accounted for 71pc of all deaths in this category.
Symptoms of the disease include extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, light-headedness, swelling in the abdomen and legs.
On the reason why it affects men disproportionately, he says: “A lot of the chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer are related to poor lifestyle behaviours such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and poor diet. If you look at some national surveys, men’s lifestyle behaviours have been much less healthy than women’s, but again that’s beginning to change.”
Asked what advice he would give any man ignoring a nagging symptom, he says he would remind them poor health can be incremental.
“When you are in the middle of a problem that increases over time, very often you are not aware of it because you sort of get used to a certain level of poor health. I would appeal to men’s logic and ask them what could be more important than their health?
“Ask yourself: Is there just two or three small things I can do that would make a real difference?
“First thing, if I am worried about anything, get it checked, don’t wait until tomorrow. Second, look at my lifestyle and see if I can make small improvements.
“In terms of mental health ask yourself how can I avail of supports or find just one person to talk to if I am struggling or feeling low?