Closing the Gap
Despite increased longevity for both genders, women continue to outlive men.
by Lisa James
"Grow old with me, the best is yet to be,” wrote Victorian era poet Robert Browning. Even as lifespans continue to lengthen, however, there is a catch: Women outpace men in terms of life expectancy, a discrepancy that keeps growing. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, life expectancy at birth in 1900 was 46.3 for men and 48.3 for women, a two-year difference. In 2005, the figures were 75.2 for men and 80.4 for women, a difference of 5.2 years.
Fewer women are dying in childbirth than a century ago—but that doesn’t account for the entire gap. “The overall mortality rate is 41% higher for men. They fall ill at a younger age and have more chronic illnesses than women,” says Harvey Simon, MD, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and editor-in-chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. He adds that the gender survival gap exists in every country with reliable health reporting.
The Weaker Sex?
According to Simon, men are at a survival disadvantage from one end of life to the other. “About 115 males are conceived for every 100 females, but males are much more likely to die before birth,” he says. “And the longevity gap persists even into very old age. Among centenarians, there are four females for every male.”
Seeing the gender gap is easy; accounting for it is not. Genetics provides a partial explanation. Women get two copies of the X chromosome (one from each parent) but men get their mother’s X and their father’s Y, which contains fewer genes. “Some of these genes may be linked to diseases that contribute to excess male mortality,” Simon notes. He adds that women generally have higher levels of HDL cholesterol, the type that helps keep arteries clear, and lower levels of triglycerides, blood fats that can harm health if present in excessive amounts. Men are developing type 2 diabetes at higher rates than women and have less active immune systems (International Journal of Clinical Practice 3/10).
Testosterone plays a role in the gender survival gap, but not because of its direct effects on men’s bodies. In naturally occurring amounts, “testosterone neither impairs cholesterol levels nor damages the heart,” says Simon. And while this hormone can fuel prostate disease, the female hormone estrogen does the same for breast disease—and breast cancer deaths outpace those caused by prostate cancer. Testosterone does influence male behavior, however. “From boyhood on, males take more risks than females, and they often pay the price in terms of trauma, injury and death,” says Simon.
What’s more, “testosterone is a powerful hormone that gets guys moving. Men sometimes don’t sense body messages that women are more likely to pick up on,” says James Green, co-founding member of the American Herbalists Guild and author of The Male Herbal (Crossing Press). As a result, says Green, “women take better care of themselves. If something happens, most guys will blow it off and say, ‘Ah, it will go away.’ We’re kind of embarrassed, especially if it’s something where a doctor has to get kind of intimate about it.”
Higher stress levels also help explain greater male mortality. Simon gives the stereotypical example of the hard-charging male executive, saying, “Work stress can increase the risk of hypertension, heart attack and stroke.” Men often try to cope with such pressures by themselves—unlike women, who are more likely to depend on friends for emotional support.
Maintaining Male Health
Some aspects of the longevity gap are here to stay. “Men can’t change their chromosomes and genes, and very few would change their hormones,” says Simon. But there are things that men can do to improve their survival odds.
The first step is to reduce such heedless behaviors as driving recklessly, drinking excessively and smoking. Avoiding the practitioner’s office is another risky move. “Men who have the most macho views about masculinity are the least likely to get routine checkups,” says Simon.
Avoiding risk is one side of the coin; living a healthy lifestyle is the other. For men the first step towards that life is often taken in sneakers. “Men jump at the issue of prevention in regards to fitness. Getting fit makes them look good, which has the side effect of improving their health,” says Green. It’s more than just making muscle, though.
A well-rounded fitness plan includes aerobic activities such as jogging to condition the heart and stretching to keep joints from stiffening.
Another weapon a man can use to stave off early mortality is his fork. “In terms of diet, “you can’t do better than organic, high-quality food—saving money on food is a very poor investment,” Green says. He suggests eating a lot of raw food, especially celery and carrots (“better then popping potato chips or candy,” he notes). Green also recommends pumpkin seeds. They are a good source of the zinc required for reproductive and immune system health, and for cellular repair; and magnesium, which supports the heart and nerves, and may play a role in proper blood sugar usage (Medical Science Monitor 6/10). Lycopene, plentiful in tomatoes and watermelon, helps defend cell membranes against free-radical damage and may reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease by reducing inflammation (Current Medical Chemistry 2010 Vol. 17 No. 23).
A number of herbs are available to improve male health. Green says, “It’s important to be aware of adaptogen herbs, which help the body deal with stress.” Korean ginseng is the best-known adaptogen, but the Siberian herb rhodiola has a long history of
use in sharpening concentration and fighting burnout (Phytomedicine 6/10). Green says that saw palmetto retards the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone, which can play havoc with the prostate. To protect the liver, the body’s main chemical processing plant, Green recommends either turmeric or milk thistle.
Healthy living is a good start—but men’s lives also need a sense of purpose. For Green, that means “doing what makes you happy. When you’re true to yourself your energy flows, your hormones are working well. The cells take their cues from central command.”
The best way to close the gender survival gap is by encouraging men to live lifestyles that foster well-being. As Green puts it, “Health is our natural state. The body will readily go back there if we let it.”
Maintaining a Healthy Prostate
“It is said that men push their worries into their prostate gland,” says herbalist James Green. Certainly the statistics on prostate health can be worrisome all by themselves. Benign prostate enlargement, or hyperplasia (BPH)—which causes many a man to wear a path between the bed and the bathroom all night—is the most common diagnosis for male patients between the ages of 45 and 74. Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in men, accounting for roughly 25% of all new cancers diagnosed in males, and is the second most common cause of cancer death. While BPH doesn’t lead to cancer, it can contribute to urinary tract infections and other problems. What’s more, BPH and prostate cancer symptoms overlap, often leading a man to worry about exactly which ailment he’s dealing with.
The source of all this concern is a chestnut-shaped organ that sits just below the bladder, where it produces part of the seminal fluid that carries sperm out of the body. The urethra, which carries urine from the bladder to the outside, runs through the prostate. If the latter enlarges it can constrict the urethra, causing symptoms such as frequent, sudden urges to urinate, weak or dribbling urine stream and pain or burning during urination.
Green is a strong proponent of Kegel exercises for men—the same exercises women use to reduce urinary incontinence. That’s because both men and women have a PC muscle, which runs from the public bone in the front to the tailbone in the back. “As the muscle is exercised, a greater flow of blood services the genitals and the supporting organs,” Green explains. You can isolate your PC by stopping your urine stream; that’s the muscle in question. Green recommends the following three-part routine, done five times a day to start in sets of 10: clenches done to a slow count of three, rapid clenches done as fast as you can and pushing out as if you’re trying to force urine flow.
In addition to the foods and nutrients suggested in the article above, Green recommends taking 800 IU of mixed-tocopherol vitamin E daily along with 400 to 600 mg of a calcium/magnesium supplement and 20 to 50 mg of zinc, in either picolinate or amino-acid chelate form. He says that, besides saw palmetto, nettle is a good prostate tonic, while buchu, dandelion, horsetail and yarrow are all good genitourinary tonics.
Studies indicate that low-level inflammation, like it does in other chronic diseases, may play a role in the development of prostate cancer (Future Oncology 10/08). Omega-3 fatty acids, the kind found in fish oil, is a strong anti-inflammatory, as is vitamin D. Bromelain, a digestive enzyme taken from pineapples, can also help fight inflammation if taken between meals.