The National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health's Office of Research on Women's Health announced a new Web resource this week that should make it easier for women to get their hands on quality research about everything from pregnancy to breast cancer to hormone therapy. Might a similar resource about men's health issues benefit men? Possibly. But efforts like these are in the most nascent of stages—if they exist at all. And even if they existed, we probably wouldn't use them anyway.
Until about 15 years ago, it was women who lacked information; traditionally, the standard patient in all kinds of medical research on disease and treatments had been the white male. In 1991, the Women's Health Office was created in the Department of Health and Human Services to promote gender equity in research and raise awareness about conditions such as breast cancer, osteoporosis, and depression. Since then, men's activists have been grousing that it's men who aren't getting a fair shake from the federal government. A bill calling for the establishment of a Men's Health Office to tackle such urgent male concerns as prostate cancer, accidents, and suicide has been languishing in congressional committees for years.
Considering the statistics that supporters of the men's office brandish, you'd think it would be an easy sell. According to the Men's Health Policy Center, for example, men die at higher rates than women for many leading causes of death. That includes, for example, a death rate for men that's 50 percent higher than that of women for cancer; twice that of women for ischemic heart disease, and three times that of women for HIV/AIDS. On average—as it's often pointed out—men live a total of 5.2 years less than women.
Leading Causes of Death, 2003*
|Causes of Death||Men||Women|
|Chronic lower respiratory disease||52.3||37.8|
*CDC 2005, Figures are age-adjusted rates per 100,000 U.S. population
Yet, the bill has been the victim of controversy about funding between the men's health activists who argue that in the past 20 years medicine has tilted too far toward Venus and feminists unprepared to give up an inch of their hard-won territory. Men's health advocate Glenn Sacks, for example, makes the case in this column that men's health is underappreciated and underfunded by the federal government. It's true that women's health initiatives have seen a boost in funding, says the Wall Street Journal. Yet, there's a good argument to be made that that's no reason to start a gender war, this Salon piece argues.
For the bulk of men, this bickering is unfortunate: We do have a problem with health—and it's certainly not women. In fact, it's generally our wives and girlfriends who get us to pay attention to our health at all. An American Academy of Family Physicians survey completed in 2007 found that men generally avoid going to the doctor, but among those who do go, 78 percent have been prodded into it by their spouses. Many of us consider watching what we eat unmanly; we glorify risk taking; we drink and drive at staggering rates; we avoid screening tests like the plague; and we suppress and ignore illness as long as we possibly can. Why? Well, we're men. That's just what we do. My dad does it; so do I. So we die sooner. If we want that to change, if we want to provide for our families and be around for them, we've got to face the reality that we—not the women in our lives—have to take responsibility for our health.
A recent study published in The Archives of Internal Medicine looked at what characteristics defined men who live longer than 90 years. Five things jumped out at the researchers: Those men didn't smoke, exercised regularly, avoided diabetes, controlled their weight, and controlled their blood pressure. All of those five things are behavioral.
A Men's Health Office might shed some more light on certain scientific questions: Why do so many men carry their fat in their abdomens? Why are more baby boys stillborn than girls? And it would certainly help bring attention to the grave disparities between the health of white men and those who belong to minority groups. Still, there's plenty of heavy lifting we'll have to do on our own.