“Honey, you really should go see a doctor,” wives around America tell their husbands. That refrain, however, is often not enough to prompt them to schedule a visit. Reluctance to see a doctor often leads to concern about husbands, fathers, and other men they love.
There’s more than just a grain of truth to the stereotype that men often avoid seeing a physician. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2014 found that men were half as likely as women to go to the doctor over a two-year period.
Experts say that they’ve seen the reluctance from men first-hand.
“There’s an expectation that men are tough and strong and can deal with something on their own, or that it’s a sign of weakness if something’s wrong,” says Dr. Jonathan Seyfert, a Family Medicine physician at NorthShore University HealthSystem. He says that while those expectations may keep a man from seeing a health care provider, the opposite is actually true. “Identifying any issues early will only make men stronger and preserve health in the long term,” he says.
“Men often put themselves last. There is always something more important to do than go to the doctor, but they should take care of themselves so they can be there for their family,” says Dr. Michael McGuire, a urologist at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.
Why being proactive matters, particularly for men
Being proactive and establishing a relationship with a physician can have many benefits, according to the experts.
McGuire notes that life expectancies for men are on the rise, which is positive, but adds, “if you want those additional years to be good years, staying healthy is key.” Seyfart says that “having a doctor who gets to know you over the years and oversees your health is important for maximizing health and longevity.”
“Everyone should have a clinician they can identify by name,” agrees Dr. Mark Fendrick, director of the Center for Value-Based Insurance Design at the University of Michigan, and a practitioner of internal medicine.
Establishing a relationship with a primary care doctor is essential because it facilitates screening for health issues.
Heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in men, according to the CDC. They and other conditions such as diabetes are among diseases known as “silent killers,” meaning that they don’t always present obvious symptoms. “Some men feel normal but have a serious medical condition that has yet to surface,” explains Seyfert. He supports annual physicals.
Fendrick, however, says that once the relationship with a physician has been established, annual physicals may not be necessary and the focus for healthy individuals should be on seeing a physician for recommended screening.
“Instead of thinking that you need to go see your clinicians like you would your dentist, it would benefit people if they could become aware of routine recommended screenings by US Preventative Services Task Force and immunizations,” says Fendrick. (You can find a list online, and most are covered at no cost to the patient under the Affordable Care Act.) For example, men should have their cholesterol screened for the first time at age 35 and colorectal cancer screenings should begin at age 50, assuming the individual has no risk factors.
“I recommend that my patients see me as recommended, and then I promise to do something I know will make them healthier or prevent them from having a treatable condition,” he explains. That promise of going only when it’s necessary resonates with even reticent patients.
When there’s a problem
“Many men grew up being told to shake it off, but letting physical pain go untreated only worsens it,” says Ana Fadich, vice president of Men’s Health Network, a national nonprofit organization with the mission of promoting education and awareness of men’s health. She says men sometimes put off a visit to a physician when they are experiencing pain or having a problem.
“We need to make sure our boys and our adults know that it’s not only OK to talk about and seek help for pain, it’s a good thing,” she adds.
Half of men report concerns with sexual health in their 50s, says Seyfert. He notes that sexual health is closely tied to overall health, and that smoking, obesity, medication, and age all contribute to sexual health.
Sometimes, however, sexual issues are not related to other issues and are far more treatable now than they have been in the past. McGuire says historically some men have avoided treatment thinking that there aren’t many treatment options and that those that are available have undesirable side effects like incontinence or impotence. McGuire says that is no longer the case and that “there are lots of treatments that are highly effective and have minimal if any side effects.” He adds that treatment is also cheaper than it used to be.
“A healthy sex life makes everything better. It’s a normal and important part of life and not something you have to do without, from a medical standpoint,” says McGuire.
5 ways women can help the men they love stay on top of their health
1. Pay attention
It’s likely that women are in tune with the men they love and will notice changes that can indicate a health issue. “Be the second pair of eyes that they need,” advises Fadich.
For example, they may notice changes in moles or the appearance of lesions on the skin, or notice other physical differences that merit medical attention. Women may also notice lifestyle changes, such as the inability to sit through a movie without having to go to the bathroom or getting up often in the night, which McGuire says can indicate urology problems that are often easily treatable.
They may also notice when a loved one loses interest in activities they used to enjoy or starts showing an inability to keep up with day-to-day tasks, which can be signs of a mental health issue.
2. Help educate
Fadich says that women and men approach health very differently, and women should not expect men to be the same. She suggests that women try to educate their partner, which can be as simple as picking up a pamphlet at the doctor’s office or a health fair and leaving it where the man is likely to find it.
3. Be a partner, but ultimately leave decisions up to them
Telling the man you love that you want to have him around and enjoy life for as long as possible can be a good way to open up a conversation and make it clear that you’re on his side.
Being a partner can also mean going to an appointment with him, if he wants, and taking notes. Fadich suggests being in the room after the physical exam is complete, and also offering to help with following up after appointments. Don’t take over, and don’t make decisions.
Seyfert says that being on the same page and sharing goals can be helpful. He is recovering from shoulder surgery and says that he appreciates his wife reminding him to do his physical therapy exercises. “She knows I want to maximize recovery and I appreciate her helping me by holding me accountable,” he says.
4. Make healthy lifestyle choices yourself and encourage moderation
Enjoy a healthy dinner with your partner and then take a walk together.
Invite your partner to join you in having a glass of red wine, which some studies show has heart-healthy benefits. Then switch to something non-alcoholic and encourage your partner to do the same. Men are more likely to binge drink, which has negative health effects, the CDC says.
“Your grandma was right. All things in moderation is a good philosophy,” says Fendrick. He says that he encourages sports fans to not have five or six drinks just on game day and instead spread them out over the week so they’re having just one a day.
5. Encourage men to be good role models
Remind men that their behavior influences their children and encourage them to see taking care of themselves as part of being good role models. Fadich says if boys see their dads feeling comfortable going to the doctor, they are less likely to be scared and more likely to see it as a positive and a normal part of taking care of your health.
Shannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshop to the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.
Shannan is the Illinois Champion Leader for [email protected], a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that supports vaccination efforts in developing countries to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the hardest to reach children. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries and I’d love nothing more than to see diseases eradicated,” Shannan says. “We are so close to getting rid of polio for good!”