This is the follow-up to my previous post about the problems of men in America today ... which I got to thinking about after my recent flu shot.
But just so you know, my wife and I often go against type. I'm the one who stops and asks for directions, not her. I'm the one who goes to the doctor and gets my checkups, not her. And I'm the one taking a book discussion course at the senior center, with two other men and 18 women. Meanwhile, B is doing a technology course with mostly men and only a few women.
So what's my point? I can't speak for B. But as for myself, I'm trying to behave more like a woman, simply because I believe it will help me live longer -- which at this stage of life is of more urgent concern than it was 20 or 30 years ago when ... you know, I was going to live forever.
We all know that in general women live longer than men. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the average life expectancy for a male born in the United States today is about 76 years. For a female it's 81. Even before they're born, males are at risk. About 115 males are conceived for every 100 females. But on average only 104 of those males make it into the world, as 11 of them fail to survive until birth.
A 2012 study from Australia suggested that mutations in DNA account for at least some of the difference between life expectancies. And it's not just in humans. The life expectancy of a male chimpanzee is 45 years, compared to 59 for the female. The average male mosquito lives a week, the female a month.
The study supports what scientists have long known -- that at least some of the difference in longevity between men and women is in the genes. Natural selection favors reproduction over longevity, in essence using the body simply as a vehicle for passing on genes. Males have shorter lifespans because once they pass on their genes, they are disposable. Females are built to stick around to raise their young -- especially in species like humans who take many years to mature.
A related theory suggests that males compete with one another for the attention of females. The male who proves his mettle by engaging in risky behaviors like hunting and fighting is more likely to attract the female and therefore pass on his genes -- at least, evolutionarily speaking. But unfortunately for males, the more risky the behavior, the shorter the lifespan.
But scientists estimate than only about 30% of the variation in longevity can be attributed to genetics. The rest depends on environmental and societal factors -- your exposures and your behaviors. So what can we men do to increase their life expectancy?
Take fewer risks. Men in their late teens and 20s go through a testosterone surge that tends to produce aggressive and risky behaviors. Young men drive too fast, don't wear their seatbelts; they fight and experiment with deadly weapons, and engage in risky sexual behavior (but I don't really want to go there -- that's a topic for another blog post, and one not written be me). Even today, this all leads to a higher death rate among young men, as more men than women die in accidents and homicides. And we all know that risky behavior doesn't always end when a man turns 30.
Get a safer job. Traditionally, men took on dangerous jobs, from the military to mining, while women filled safer jobs such as teaching, nursing and child care. In modern times, dangerous jobs have become safer, and the gender gap is closing. Nevertheless, men still work most of the dangerous jobs in America, from fishermen to farmer, roofer to truck driver.
Don't smoke or drink or take drugs. Men tend to party more than women, and it takes its toll on their health. Fortunately, this gender gap is shrinking, as over the last two decades men have smoked less and less. Unfortunately, the results are different for drugs.
Eat a healthier diet. Men eat more meat, more high-fat snacks, more high-fructose corn syrup -- all leading to higher levels of cholesterol. A diet with more fruits and vegetables (which can reduce colon cancer) and less red meat (which reduces the risk of both cancer and heart disease) will help men improve their health and extend their life expectancy.
Deal with your stress. Researchers once thought that men suffered more stress because of their demanding jobs. That may no longer be true, as women are working more, earning more and shouldering more financial responsibility for themselves and their families. But one thing is certain. Men internalize their stress, or deal with it in harmful ways, such as drinking or fighting. Men also have higher suicide rates than women. And stress plays an important role in heart disease. So it's crucial for men to find healthful outlets for stress through sports, counseling, meditating or support groups.
Go to the doctor. A lot of men (but not me!) won't go to the doctor, no matter how much it hurts, out of a false sense of bravado. While it may not be necessary for young males to undergo an annual physical, older men should see a doctor regularly and make sure to keep up with preventive care, from monitoring cholesterol to screening for prostate and colon cancer.
One last note. Women shouldn't take their longer life expectancy for granted. The gender gap has been closing. According to a report from the University of Washington, between 1989 and 2009, life expectancy increased by 4.6 years for men, but only 2.7 years for women. Let's hope that any further narrowing of the gap is not due to women acting more like men, but men behaving more like women.