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Men’s Health: The Biological (and Social) Differences

It can be easy to forget the differences between men’s and women’s health, and why it’s so important for men to be aware of their gender’s particular health risks

June is Men’s Health Month, which might bring to mind the health and well-being of the men in your life: husbands, fathers, sons, nephews, uncles, and friends. And if you’re a man, you might consider the state of your own health and well-being.

But it also might make you think–is men’s health really all that different from women’s health? Or children’s health? Why does men’s health get its own month of recognition? The answers may surprise you.

Biological differences, or social?

On average, men have a life expectancy six years shorter than women worldwide. This is regardless of the cause of death (communicable diseases, non-communicable diseases, or injuries). But why? It gets a little complicated.

It might be partially biological. Several ideas have been proposed, such as better protection from oxidative stress in women, the effects of women’s second ‘X’ chromosome, more active immune function, and the protective effects of estrogen. While these theories may play some role, it’s likely that ethnic and socio-cultural factors also play a significant factor.

A report from the CDC found that women are 33 percent more likely to visit the doctor than men, and women are 100 percent better at maintaining screening and preventive care.

The rate of visits by women for [annual examinations] was 100 percent higher than among men.

Centers for Disease and Control

Another study found that 40% of men don’t go to the doctor at all unless they have a serious or urgent medical problem. 20% report avoiding care due to feeling nervous about the results of screenings, and a significant number admit to being uncomfortable with invasive exams like prostate checks or colonoscopies.

The less-is-more approach

Dr. Mark Donnelly of Everside Health finds that, for the most part, men being less inclined to pursue their own health and well-being rings true.

“The majority of men that I see, their significant other influences them to go,” he explains. “I don’t know if it’s stubbornness, but there’s definitely some outside influences that get them to make the jump [to see me].”

Once they’re in the health center? Dr. Donnelly says that, in his experience, less is more. “The biggest reason why I think men don’t come back to the doctor is that too many things are thrown at them to take care of. They need to stop smoking, lose weight, start these meds, schedule a colonoscopy…if I tell him he’s got to do ten different tests, 90% of the time I’ll never see him again.”

“…if I tell [a male patient] he’s got to do ten different tests, 90% of the time I’ll never see him again.”

Dr. Donnelly has found success in making those first visits more conversational and introductory instead of prescriptive. “It helps to have baby steps, just to talk about your health and introduce you to the health center,” he says. “It can defuse that push that men have to not come back.”

Key factors: the heart and prostate

While heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women worldwide, men generally develop cardiovascular disease (CVD) at a younger age than women. They also have a higher propensity of developing coronary heart disease. Likewise, at younger age the relative risk of hypercholesterolaemia (a type of hyperlipidemia, a.k.a. high cholesterol) is lower in women compared to men.

This distinction is likely due to a combination of biological and social factors, just like all of men’s health. “You could argue, maybe [men] live a little bit harder,” explains Dr. Donnelly. “Maybe more indulgent in their nutrition, weight gain, rates of smoking. There’s going to be sociocultural aspects to it.”

The same barriers seem to hold true for prostate exams, as well. In 2018, only 39% of men between 55 and 69 had a PSA test within the past year.

In 2018, only 39% of men between 55 and 69 had a PSA test within the past year.

National Cancer Institute

Dr. Donnelly notes the importance in men getting these vital exams and screenings in a timely manner. “I view it as a success if I can get them interested in caring for the health of their heart and prostate. Whether it’s labs, an EKG, even just getting family history.”

“Often, when something is found with the heart or prostate, it’s likely that it could have been found before and something [could have been] done,” if recommended screenings were followed, he explains.

A better clinical experience

Both men and women are less likely to return to a healthcare provider if their clinical experience is poor, perhaps doubly so when the patient is hesitant about the visit in the first place.

“[The Everside center] is such a different experience from what I believe a lot of them have had. Where it’s your churn-and-burn experience, only 15 minutes with a provider and maybe 7 minutes of that where you get to tell your [health] story.”

“They may be coming into the center with that previous experience in mind, and [the visit is] different,” he explains. “The way they’re greeted, the cleanliness of the clinic, the amount of time they get with their provider.”

That sense of being heard and the time to open up–without being overwhelmed by a list of clinical to-do’s–is what convinces a lot of men to return, Dr. Donnelly says. “It’s a different feel, a different vibe than what they’re used to, and I think it helps.”

“[The Everside center] is such a different experience from what I believe a lot of them have had…The way they’re greeted, the cleanliness of the clinic, the amount of time they get with their provider.”

If you’ve got a male friend or loved one in your life, remind them that June is Men’s Health Month and ask them when they last saw a doctor for a check-up. There are both biological and social factors that make men’s health different than women’s health–and too often men go too long without seeing a healthcare provider.

And if you’re a man trying to remember when you last saw a primary care provider, that probably means it’s time for a visit. Have access to an Everside health center through your employer or union organization? Make your appointment today!