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How has men’s health changed over time?

Did you know that women have a longer life expectancy than men? Women are also more likely to visit their GP than men, and less likely to drink excessive amounts of alcohol. But why is there such a large health gap between males and females?

Life expectancy

Men have a lower life expectancy than women, even though there is no biological reason for there to be a difference. Men have a much higher suicide rate than women and are more likely to die from preventable diseases with research indicating that up to half of male cancer cases could be prevented by improving diet and lifestyle.

There have been two turning points in trends in life expectancy in England in the past decade. From 2011, increases in life expectancy slowed after decades of steady improvement and in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic cause a more significant turning point, causing a sharp fall in life expectancy not seen to this extent since World War II.

In the 19th century, males had a life expectancy just 2 years lesser than women (40.2 years vs 42.3 years) but in the early 20th century, the gender gap in life expectancy started to widen, peaking at 6.3 years (69.2 vs 75.5) by 1971. This was due to poor working conditions and smoking among men in contrast to improved life chances for women, for example, lower risk of dying in labour.

By 2019, life expectancy at birth in England reached 80 years for men and 83.7 years for women, narrowing the gender gap once again. Healthy life expectancy also increased over time, but not at much as life expectancy – meaning more years are spent in poor health. An English male could expect to reach 79.8 years of age in 2017-19 but his average healthy life expectancy was only 63.2 years – i.e. he would have spent 16.6 of those years (21%) in ‘not good’ health.

During the same period, an English female could expect to live to 83.4 years, of which 19.9 years (24%) would have been spent in ‘not good’ health. So although females live an average of 3.6 years longer than males, 3.3 of those additional years is spent in poor health.

However, in 2020 we saw the gender gap widen once again to 4 years due to mortality rates from Covid-19 being higher in males than females.

Women are much more likely to visit their GP when ill as well examine themselves for lumps and bumps. Whereas men are less likely to report the symptoms of disease or illness, resulting in their condition being likely to have worsened by the time they decide to seek diagnosis. As well as being less likely to seek medical help, deaths from occupational causes are far higher among men and coronary heart disease death rates are up to five times higher for men.

The underlying cause of this pattern of health inequality between genders lies in different exposure to risks, especially at work. These risks include working in occupations with a poorer safety record and ‘lifestyle’ issues such as men’s diet and reluctance to talk about personal matters.

According to the Office for National Statistics, ‘the reduction in the proportion of men smoking, along with the decline of heavy industry and the move away from physical labour and manufacturing industries towards the service sector are likely factors in why the gender health gap has narrowed in recent years’.

Weight, diet and exercise

Every year, the NHS release a publication on the Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet in England.

Their most recent publication, covering April 2018 – December 2019 found that during this time frame, just 25% of men were eating the recommended 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day. In comparison, in 2007 27% of men were meeting these guidelines, up from 22% in 2001. So why have we seen a slight U-turn in the last decade?

This could be down to recent estimates suggesting that households in the bottom fifth of income distribution may need to spend 42% of their income, after housing costs, on food in order to follow the Public Health England’s recommended diet, as reported by www.kingsfund.org.uk.

The same NHS publication found that in 2018/19, 41% of men were overweight, with an additional 26% of males falling into the obese category. This totals 67% of men being of an unhealthy weight compared with 60% of women. The total proportion of adults who were obese was 28%.

In 2007, almost a quarter of adults (24% of both men and women) were obese, and 65% of men were of an unhealthy weight (overweight including obese) compared with 56% of women.

In 1993 the percentage of obese adults in England was just 9%, showing an increase of 19% in the years from 1993 to 2018.

Not only is this affecting our own quality of life but it can also have an impact on the children of obese or overweight parents with the 2018 study showing that 22% of children with obese fathers were also obese themselves.

So how can we change this?

The study showed that overall, physical activity has increased among both men and women since 1997, with 40% of men and 28% of women meeting the recommended physical activity guidelines in 2006 (7-8% increase from 1997-2006). Since then, there has been a vast improvement in this area with 67% of adults being considered as active as per the government guidelines and men (70%) were more likely to be active than women (65%) in the 2018/19 publication.

What does this mean?

All in all, the gender gap in life expectancy is steadily reducing and although men are more physically active than women, there is definitely room for improvement in other areas.

Take some time to assess your own behaviours and lifestyle choices and see where you could make some small, yet beneficial changes. As men are less likely to visit their GP when problems arise, you should also research into any potential risk factors for diseases that affect both genders but also those associated solely with men, such as prostate and testicular cancer. We have provided you with a number of resources below to get you started:

So, if there’s anything that you take away from this article let it be that you make some healthier food choices, squeeze in a little extra physical activity, visit your GP rather than avoiding the problem and don’t be afraid to speak out if you are struggling with your mental health.

After all, each of the above tips could help you to live longer.

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