The Health Gap

Men remain at greater risk



Illustration by Max Gagnon

We hear a lot these days about the gender gap, and with good reason. In addition to the inequalities between the sexes that are most discussed, though, such as differences in pay and power, there is another — and in this case, women have the advantage.

Statistics show that throughout life men are more likely than women to die. Men have a higher risk than women of dying from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, suicide and other leading causes of death in this country. Although the life expectancy for both sexes has, for the most part, gradually increased during many of the past decades, men’s gains have lagged behind women’s. Indeed, even though men are, generally speaking, the stronger sex, with their typically bigger bodies and muscles, they are expected to live, on average, about five years less than women.

The shoe’s on the other foot when it comes to certain ailments, of course, with women more likely than men to experience diseases such as breast cancer and osteoporosis. In addition, more women than men are obese, and being overweight or obese raises the risk of a number of health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer. Women again have a slight advantage here, though, because they tend to carry excess weight around their hips and thighs, whereas men often accumulate more belly fat, which is considered particularly dangerous because it includes visceral fat that lies deep in the body, among the organs in the abdomen.

Science is still not able to clearly explain all of the health risk differences that exist between the sexes, but most likely, a blend of biological, behavioral and social factors contribute to the disparities, says Leon Hecht III, ND, a naturopathic doctor at North Coast Family Health in Portsmouth.

Consider lifestyle choices, for example. Compared to women, men are more likely to engage in risky behavior. Some of that risk can be traced to occupation, with more men than women working in the fishing industry or employed as firefighters and construction workers.

But men are also more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, and to exercise less than women and eat less healthful diets. They tend to have less robust social support systems, with more women maintaining closer friendships. More men than women lack health insurance, and fewer men have preventive checkups.
Meanwhile, women’s monthly menstrual cycles might help them be more attuned to their body, Hecht says, and perhaps raise their awareness of their overall health and early signs of illness. Cultural pressures on women to be physically appealing, he adds, as harmful as those can be, might help motivate some women to forgo unhealthful food and exercise more regularly.

For now, at least, the best all of us — male or female — can do to help sway the odds of longevity and good health in our favor is to fortify what Hecht calls “the three pillars” of health: diet, fitness and sleep. That means, he says, eating a diet that is heavy on vegetables, exercising on a regular basis, and consistently getting seven to eight hours of restful sleep per night.

All three pillars are important, but “the fitness piece is huge,” Hecht says. “We are not meant to sit; we’re not designed for that. For a lot of us, once the day starts, it’s not ours anymore, so even if you can just do half an hour of exercise in the morning, it helps.” It’s all about “getting back to basics,” Hecht says, and “thinking about how we were designed.”

A top threat to men's health

Men are at greater risk than women for most of the leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and suicide. On average, men live shorter lives than women. But of all of the heightened health risks specific to men, one of the most significant — especially here in New Hampshire — is addiction, says Boris Golosarsky, MD, FACPI, an internal medicine physician at Foundation Adult Medicine and Men’s Health in Nashua, and an addiction treatment specialist at ROAD to a Better Life in New Hampshire.

Addiction “is a cornerstone men’s health problem,” Golosarsky says, and “a huge problem” in the Granite State. New Hampshire has one of the highest rates in the country of death due to drug overdose, and statistics show that men are more likely than women to use illicit drugs.

Overdose deaths are “such a highly preventable thing,” Golosarsky says, but many men do not get addiction treatment. Some are ashamed to admit they have a problem and need help, for example, or they have underlying psychiatric disease and struggle to find a care provider close to home.

“Most patients I see [who are addicted] try very hard to get back on their feet,” Golosarsky says. “They try to get it back together but it’s very difficult.” Many lack transportation, so even if they want to get to treatment or just get a job, they can’t. Meanwhile, Golosarsky says, “the drug dealer is right there on the corner.”

More attention and resources need to be devoted to the problem of addiction in New Hampshire, Golosarsky says, but in the meantime “we need to spread the word that help is out there.” Each week when he works at a ROAD to a Better Life addiction clinic, patients bring pictures of someone close to them who died from an overdose — often a brother, uncle, or nephew. “It’s terrible,” he says. “These were nice, clean people. ... And it’s the most preventable cause of death in New Hampshire.”

For more information, see the website of ROAD to a Better Life: roadtoabetterlifenh.com.

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