Time to tackle the big 5
Combat the main health risks for UK men by following these tips, writes Jim Pollard.
In the UK, men are far more likely than women to die young – 40% of males die before the age of 75 compared with 26% of females. Indeed, one man in five doesn’t make retirement, dying before he is 65.
But what kills us? Most ill health and premature death in men has five main causes: heart and circulation problems, cancer, respiratory problems, liver disease and stress and mental health challenges. Here are ten tips to help you beat the big five.
1. Help your Heart
Recent reports suggest cancer now leads cardiovascular disease (CVD) – which includes heart disease and stroke – as the biggest killer in the UK. Perhaps. But, with obesity on the up, CVD is expected to top the charts again soon. The heart needs five basic fuels to keep it ticking: fresh air, a balanced diet, a healthy weight, regular exercise and a relaxed “don’t take yourself too seriously” attitude to life.
Take advantage of screening
NHS screening is available to keep an eye on your heart. If you are over 40, get an NHS health check. It is easy, quick and painless. The nurse will give you a good idea of your heart attack risk and some personalised tips to reduce it.
If you are over 65, you should be invited to AAA screening. AAA stands for abdominal aortic aneurysm, a form of burst blood vessel in the heart that kills 80% of people before they get to A&E. There are few symptoms before it bursts, so screening is vital. Men are six times more likely to have an AAA than women.
Use your dodgy ticker early-warning system
You know what a balanced diet and regular exercise look like. The challenge is to do them. Well, here’s a little incentive. Everything that is good for your heart is also good for your penis. So by looking after your ticker, you’ll be looking after your erections.
That advice cuts both ways. If you’re having erection problems – erectile dysfunction (ED) – don’t ignore it or put it down to age, as age doesn’t make much difference. ED could be an early sign of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or other problems. By seeing your GP, you’ll get both the ED and the underlying problem sorted out.
2. Reduce your Cancer Risk
At least one-third of us will get cancer in our lives. Analysis by the Men’s Health Forum suggests men are 56% more likely than women to get cancer and 67% more likely to die from it. Cancer Research UK reckons an unhealthy lifestyle is behind around one-third of cancers. The most common cancers in men are prostate, lung and bowel, in that order. Between them, they account for more than half of all cancers in men.
Know your symptoms
For a disease that is so much a part of our lives, we’re surprisingly poorly informed about the symptoms of cancer. In a Men’s Health Forum survey, only 61% of men said they would go to see their GP if they had blood in a stool, 54% if they were coughing up blood and 28% if they had a persistent cough. The first is the most common symptom of bowel cancer, the other two of lung cancer.
Other symptoms to look out for include any unexplained bleeding, weight loss or pain; a lump/swelling; getting out of breath more easily; blood in urine; changes in moles; feeling bloated; or heartburn for three weeks or more.
If you experience any of these, see your GP. You are not wasting their time.
The single best thing you can do to reduce your cancer risk is to not smoke. But you knew that already. The second best is to keep active.
It is an inexact science, but research on the causes of death suggests being inactive is responsible for twice as many deaths as being overweight. Ideally, you should aim for two and a half hours of moderately aerobic activity a week. Make sure it’s exercise that leaves you a little breathless, such as brisk walking, cycling or a bit of sport. But anything is better than nothing.
3. Look after your Liver
Liver disease is the only major cause of death still increasing year on year in the UK, with twice as many people dying of it today as in 1991. Men are twice as likely to die as women. There are three main causes: obesity, viral infections such as hepatitis and, most of all, alcohol.
Keep an eye on alcohol
The maximum safe level for male drinking was reduced in January 2016 from 21 units a week to 14. This reflects the real concern about the damage drink can do. It breaks down like this: cut down to 14 units and have a few nights off a week. If you can’t cut down, stop for a month. If you can’t stop, get help. Really, it is that simple.
Use a condom
There are several types of hepatitis. You can reduce the risk enormously by using a condom during sex, not sharing drug needles, and getting any vaccinations available especially when travelling abroad where the water might be less safe. Using a condom protects against other serious diseases too.
4. Breathe more easily
Diseases related to breathing include asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. The last two are part of a family of diseases called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). After lung cancer, COPD is the main cause of lung disease death. The UK is in the top 20 countries worldwide for COPD deaths. In Europe, only Denmark and Hungary have higher COPD death rates. The primary cause of lung disease is smoking and the best advice we can give you is to stop.
5. Beat stress
Most mental health problems don’t, by themselves, kill, but they can lead to self-harm and suicide if left unchecked. Three-quarters of all suicides are by men and suicide is the main cause of death in males under 35. Arguably, good mental health is the most important thing of all. If you’re feeling right between your ears, you’re far more likely to be aware of other changes in your body and get them checked out.
Try a time-out
Good mental health is not about avoiding stress. That would be impossible, and a little stress is good for you anyway. It is about knowing how to deal with it. You first need to know yourself and how you react. What lights your fuse? Work (or lack of it), money worries, family?
The key thing is: it’s not about someone else. Someone else might annoy or upset you, but you choose how you react. Avoid fixating on whose fault it is; focus on how you react. Do you get angry? Do you get sad? Walk away and figure it out rather than reacting first and asking questions later.
Know your stress busters
What makes you feel better? Exercise, a walk, puzzles, sports, games, getting outdoors, dancing, singing, laughing, a good night’s sleep, a hobby, meeting mates, learning something or doing a course, volunteering? There is evidence for all of these.
Consider these five things when looking for a stress buster that works for you: connect (with others), be active, take notice (of what’s around you), keep learning and give. If you are ticking a few of those boxes, you will feel better soon. As long as whatever you do isn’t harming you or anyone else, a bit of what you fancy does you good.
Talk about it
Talking makes you feel better. You don’t have to talk about anything heavy. Football is fine.
When you do have something more serious on your mind, whether it’s about your physical or mental health, talk to someone who can do something about it. For a minor problem, that might be your high-street pharmacist. For something more, it might be your GP. The Men’s Health Forum has an online chat service too (beatstress.uk).
Jim Pollard is editor of the Men’s Health Forum website and author of the award-winning User’s Guide to the Male Body