Many men make the time to maintain their cars and keep current on their fantasy football lineups. But when it comes to taking care of their own health, they tend to put it off — or worse, avoid it altogether. This can lead to more serious health issues if not addressed.
Three notable threats to men’s overall health and wellness are mental health, prostate cancer and testicular cancer. The good news is that many of these threats can be prevented by improving awareness and education, making a few lifestyle changes, and building a “health maintenance plan.”
Understanding mental health and suicide prevention
Often ignored, mental health is a key component to men’s overall wellness. Nearly 1 in 10 men in the U.S. reported experiencing some form of depression or anxiety, but less than half of those men sought treatment, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).
Though men are evolving, there is still a preconceived notion that “being a man” means being silent and strong, which doesn’t serve them well. Trying to go it alone when feeling down can increase the risk of depression going unrecognized and untreated.
Untreated or prolonged depression is a major risk factor for suicide, and according to published studies, depression plays a contributing role to the major difference in suicide rates for men and women. In the U.S. in 2020, men died by suicide 3.63 times as often as women, although women were 1.4 times more likely to attempt suicide.
“It’s difficult at times for men to feel free and honest about their emotions and their behavioral health,” says Dr. Hans Crumpler, a board-certified family medicine physician affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “We have degrees of stigma that have followed behavioral health for centuries now, and it's unfortunate because everybody experiences an imbalance at some point in their lives, some more severe than others.”
Although both men and women can develop some type of mental illness, the warning signs displayed can vary greatly. Outside of noticeable changes in energy level, aggression and even thoughts of suicide, some men may have physical symptoms, such as digestive disturbances or headaches.
Men typically respond differently to life’s unexpected challenges. Meeting these challenges head on and taking control is an effective way to reduce the risk of serious mental health events. Making the decision to reach out and initiate a conversation with a friend, loved one or trusted acquaintance, and establishing better social connections, will also lead to improving their quality of life.
“There are certain resources that are going to be more individualized for each person if they feel comfortable reaching into that part of their psyche and talking about emotional health,” adds Dr. Crumpler. “Society has at least accepted it and is giving more avenues for men to be able to express themselves.”
Although small, the prostate plays a large role in men’s health
The prostate gland produces seminal fluid that nourishes and transports sperm, as well as serves as a passageway for urine. Although it’s only about the size of a walnut, it plays a major part in men’s health.
The risk of developing prostate cancer increases with age. It’s the second leading cause of cancer-related death in men in the U.S., and about 1 in 8 men will be diagnosed with it during their lifetime.
Slow growing, prostate cancer may never cause any noticeable symptoms, and monitoring is recommended, as detection can be difficult. On many occasions, a doctor may be the first person to notice it during a routine checkup. It’s important to get an annual evaluation, as the survival rate of prostate cancer is greatly improved with early detection and personalized treatment.
A digital rectal examination may be used to identify an issue. The doctor examines the prostate by inserting a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum to feel for any bumps or hard areas on the prostate that might be cancer.
According to the United States Preventive Services Task Force, men age 55 to 69 should also consult with their doctor about the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test. This test measures the blood level of PSA — a protein made by cells in the prostate gland.
If the PSA level is too high, further testing with a specialist may be needed to look for the presence of prostate cancer. Although it is not a perfect test — it can provide some false results — it may be useful as part of the screening process, along with a man’s family history and previous symptoms.
A healthy lifestyle is also key to reducing the risk of prostate cancer. Consuming fresh vegetables and fruits, staying hydrated, not overindulging in alcohol and caffeine, and avoiding smoking and tobacco products are all added benefits to overall health, particularly for the prostate.
“Let food be your medication so medication does not become your food,” Dr. Crumpler says.
Testicular cancer: not just an older person’s disease
Another major threat to men’s health is testicular cancer. In 2021, an estimated 9,470 men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with testicular cancer — one of the most diagnosed cancers in young adult men, with the average age of diagnosis at 33. In 2020, there were an estimated 3,100 new cases among men age 30 to 39, and 3,000 new cases among men age 20 to 29.
“Discussing this topic starts with my male teenage patients to help them get comfortable with their bodies,” explains Dr. Crumpler. “I like to educate them on how to examine their testicles and what they’re feeling for. If there’s something abnormal within the body of the testicle, they should bring this up with their primary doctor.”
The odds of survival for men with testicular cancer are better when it’s diagnosed in the early stages. When the cancer remains local and does not spread beyond the testicles, there is a 99% 5-year survival rate, which means that 99% of patients will live at least 5 years beyond diagnosis. Even patients that have a prognosis of cancer that is regionalized, or spreads to nearby tissues, have a favorable 96% survival rate.
“Detection starts with communication from infancy on up, then it boils down to familiarity and education,” explains Dr. Crumpler. “It's important that we all take some degree of measuring and monitoring of our own body’s responses and signals to see what it's telling us.”
Taking action to maintain overall health
The feeling of invincibility often causes men to stand in their own way to better health. Although some steps are self-evident, such as making healthier lifestyle choices, the ability to recognize that this is a lifelong commitment is even more important to reaching the ultimate goal — improving overall health and extending life expectancy.
“You don't wait until the check engine light comes on in your car before you decide to change the oil,” states Dr. Crumpler. “You hopefully treat it before smoke blows out of the tailpipe. For the human body, it's just as important — in fact, even more so — because it is more complex and more precious than any vehicle.”
Dr. Crumpler tells his male patients that it's OK to be selfish about paying attention to your body. It's objective information that the body generates.
“Scientific testing gives us guidance, but listening to ourselves is the starting point,” he says.