05.01.11

The Health Crisis Killing Manly Men

Guys who eat junk food, don't wear sunscreen or go to the doctor when they're sick are seen as real men, but their attitudes are sending them to an early grave. Tony Dokoupil on the advertising push that could make men as healthy as women—and even make America competitive in the 21st century.

Guys who eat junk food, don't wear sunscreen, or go to the doctor when they're sick are seen as real men, but their attitudes are sending them to an early grave. Tony Dokoupil on the advertising push that could make men as healthy as women—and even make America competitive in the 21st century.

During drive time one afternoon this spring, a Boston National Public Radio station tried to drum up interest in men's health, a subject that proved poorly matched for a chat show. Just two callers phoned in during the 20-minute segment. One, "Jeff," asked a tongue-in-cheek question about "man-colds." The other, a female emergency room doctor, recounted incredulously how men in the middle of obvious heart attacks—sweating, clutching their chests—often delay coming in, blaming their wives and girlfriends for making them seek medical attention at all.

A century ago, men and women lived for roughly the same number of years. Now guys die more than five years sooner than their average female counterparts. That means a city of men the size of Miami perishes every year while a comparable city of women survives in good health. During their early twenties, three times as many men die as women. By retirement age, there are only 85 silver foxes for every 100 golden girls. Men today just don't take care of themselves, making the single biggest demographic risk factor for early death manhood itself.

There's no reason for this, says Denise Hines, an assistant professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts who is keen to narrow the gap between male and female death rates. In a new report recently presented to Bay State lawmakers, Hines and a team of colleagues from Clark and elsewhere called for the creation of a state Men's Health Commission, aimed at raising awareness of the male condition—and sanding away its deadlier edges. As a society, she says, we treat men's poor health as inevitable. "But our experts showed that it certainly is not."

In a world where men still have it easy, in many respects, it might be tempting to dismiss all this as a boo-hoo problem, a whiny extension of the men's rights movement, or false victimization. But there are "massive hidden costs" to the status quo, Hines warns, and major benefits to improving men's health. Making them as healthy as women, researchers have found, would save more years of life than curing cancer, snap the health-care cost curve, ease the federal welfare burden, and goose an economy that itself seems half-dead. Far from a luxury issue, in fact, addressing the hazards of manhood may be exactly what an aging America needs to be competitive in the 21st century—or at least save countless women from an all-girls' retirement life.

Some officials have already begun to catch on. In the last decade, six states have formed men's health commissions or comparable organizations, thanks in part to lobbying by the Men's Health Network, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group founded to address this "growing men's health crisis." But these commissions are "unfunded and loosely organized," says Scott Williams, the vice president of MHN. The Maryland commission disbanded last year and New Hampshire's may soon suffer the same fate. In contrast, women's health initiatives are booming, with more than 30 female-focused programs founded in recent decades.

Hines hopes for ads that drill into “the illogic of [men’s] current beliefs,” with messages like, “I want to be energetic at work and home, and eating a healthy diet can help with this.”

But the risk factors for women are documented, the remedies obvious, the population energized—and that's not the case for men, whose biggest demon is their own retrograde sense of masculinity, one reinforced by friends and buttressed by popular culture. The more closely men hew to the traditional script—risk-taking, womanizing, fighting—the more likely they are to die young, says James Mahalik, a psychologist at Boston College and co-author of last month's report, "Men at Risk." For example, guys who have "disdain for homosexuals," among other old-school tendencies like "needing power over women," are four times more likely than progressive men to die of heart attacks, often because they delay treatment.

Even the average man will shorten his life span like a Cro-Magnon. Compared to women, Mahalik finds, guys are less likely to wear sunscreen, take their pills, accept bed rest, administer self-exams, develop a network of emotional support, mix in some healthy food, or exercise safely. Alternatively, he is vastly more likely to snuff himself out by smoking and drinking, drinking and driving, drugging and sexing, committing suicide or getting killed, or dying in virtually every conceivable way except childbirth. The reason for all this "stupid stuff," says Mahalik, is men "don't want to be seen as pussies or wimps."

But can society change these ideas? Naturally, public service announcements come to mind: commercials and special events that clue men in to their deadly ways, and begin to equate strength, rather than sheer toughness, with masculinity. That's what Hines, Mahalik, and others have called for. "I'd love to see manly men showing that they take care of themselves," Mahalik says, envisioning a campaign that raises awareness of terminal male idiocy the same way prior efforts have addressed anorexia in women. Hines hopes for ads that drill into "the illogic of [men's] current beliefs," with messages like, "I want to be energetic at work and home, and eating a healthy diet can help with this." But breaking through won't be easy, and not only because of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Men from some African nations see STDs as a badge of honor. Many Latino men think a finger in the anus, even if it belongs to a medical doctor, is the end of one's manhood altogether, "almost the worst thing that could happen to you," according to a study of their thoughts on prostate screenings.

Near the end of the segment on the NPR show that couldn't find a single man to talk seriously about his health, one of the expert guests, a colleague of Dr. Hines' at Clark, told the story of a construction worker who accidentally shot himself with a nail gun. Rather than run for help after he sent a reverse-barbed spike through his palm, the man sat down and calmly yanked it out, as other workers looked on. "He's the man," one later explained, and that kind of admiration is to die for.

Tony Dokoupil is a staff writer and editor at Newsweek.