It’s time to tackle men’s health, globally

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015 |

Too many men die too young across the world. The statistics could not be much clearer: globally, male life expectancy, at 68 years, lags five years behind female life expectancy. There is not a single country in which men outlive women. Overall, the gap between the sexes has actually widened since 1970 and will widen further by 2030 – by then, male life expectancy is expected be seven years shorter than female life expectancy.

Suicide rates are much higher in men than women, not least in eastern Europe. Across the world, males have a higher incidence rate in 32 of 35 cancer sites. Out of 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters identified in the Global Burden of Disease study (2010), 60 were responsible for more male than female deaths, and the top 10 risk factors were more common in men.

In 2010, three times as many men as women died as a result of tobacco smoking, and twice as many died because of their alcohol use. Almost one million more men than women died from dietary risk factors, such as low fruit and vegetable intake and eating too much processed meat.

The state of men’s health around the world has been overlooked by most national governments and international health organisations for far too long. Policymakers have sometimes talked about gender mainstreaming but, in reality, this has rarely included men. When Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile and a former Minister of Health, highlighted the need to apply ‘a gender lens’ to health, she mentioned only women despite a six-year male:female difference in life expectancy in Chile.

The reasons for overlooking men’s health are seldom spelled out but they are almost certainly linked to the fact that men are, in most spheres, the dominant sex and the main perpetrators of violence. There is, therefore, a lack of sympathy for men in areas where they do experience disadvantage. There is also a fatalism about the possibility of changing male risk-taking and a fear that allocating more resources to men’s health would result in fewer resources for women’s.

But tackling issues such as alcohol addiction and depression would help to reduce male violence. Better male health would reduce the burden on partners and children who depend on men’s incomes or who could end up becoming carers to their detriment of their own income or education. It would also reduce the burden on national economies caused by lost productivity and costs to health services. In the USA alone, poor male health currently drains the economy of an estimated $479 billion annually.

There is an increasing body of research showing that ‘gender sensitive’ health interventions aimed at men can improve outcomes. We now know, for example, that sport is an effective medium for engaging men in lifestyle improvement programmes and that many prefer men only weight management interventions.

Paying more attention to men’s health does not have to mean that less attention will be paid to women’s. This must not be seen as a zero sum game.

In a recent report on health inequalities in the UK, Professor Sir Michael Marmot, one of the world’s leading authorities on the social determinants of health, called for a greater policy focus on men’s health to help tackle the fact that deprivation has a bigger negative impact on men’s health outcomes than women’s. The adoption of a national men’s health policy in Ireland has already proved to be an effective catalyst for change.

Governments and other health organisations, national and international, must now act to address the health and wellbeing needs of men and boys – alongside women and girls – in all relevant policies and practices. If we are serious about achieving better health for all, the problems facing men can no longer be left to hide in plain sight.


Comments are closed.