Society often thinks of men as the stronger sex. Men are bigger and more muscular than women, run faster, lift more, throw things farther. So Sunday’s observance of International Men’s Day, with its special focus on “Celebrating the Health and Well-being of Men and Boys”, may have seemed counter-intuitive. But while men rule on the sports field, in medical terms it is a different story entirely. In matters of health, men are the weaker sex.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), men live shorter lives than women.
The latest WHO data published in 2015 in relation to Trinidad and Tobago puts the average life expectancy at 67.9 years for males and 74.8 years for females. In 2010 it was a similar story: 67.1 years for males; 73.9 years for females.
The cause of this discrepancy is the fact that men are more likely to die of certain diseases than women. For example, more men in TT have high blood pressure – 29.8 per cent of males and 23.1 per cent of females, according to 2013 figures from the Ministry of Health. A Pan American Health Organisation profile in 2008, showed twice as many males suffered premature death due to cardiovascular disease: 851 males, 476 females.
TT males are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviour. In 2015, 112 road accident victims were male, 21 female. The overwhelming majority of crime victims and perpetrators are also male. And the gap is not only in relation to physical conditions. Males also suffer disproportionately in terms of certain mental illnesses and suicide rates. According to WHO, the lifetime prevalence rate for alcohol dependence, a common disorder, is more than twice as high in men than women. Men are also more than three times more likely to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder than women. However, because gender bias occurs in the treatment of psychological disorders the true picture may be masked. Doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in women compared with men, even when men have similar scores on standardised measures of depression or present with identical symptoms.
In all of these matters, a combination of cultural and biological factors is at play. Men are not taught to be vigilant about their health. At the same time, they are encouraged to engage in bravado, risky behaviour. Conversely, in some cultures women are discouraged from activities as simple as drinking alcohol.
If we are serious about our productivity as a nation, it is fundamental that we acknowledge this problem and deal with it. Our changing understanding of the roles of men and women in society calls for greater vigilance. Men have a substantial role to play in families. They cannot be blind to their health needs.
We laud the efforts of the Office of the Prime Minister to highlight this issue. Internationally, public campaigns have been effective in decreasing deaths related to unhealthy behaviours, particularly those associated with male deaths. What is needed is a sustained and effective public education campaign. There is a greater role to be played by gender in the formulation and articulation of our public policy and in our discourse on healthcare and patient rights.
None of this is meant to detract from the very real challenges women face given the lack of gender parity in almost all fields of human endeavour. However, it is in the interest of all persons to ensure our fathers, sons, uncles, nephews can contribute their fullest potential to the building of our nation. As we address the overall issues affecting healthcare needs in our society, we must remember to also focus on male health