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Why men’s health is more important than ever

The pandemic has put a spotlight on the health of the nation — but is men's health at greater risk?

In 2019, the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak shocked the world. We all probably went through stages of disbelief, immense worry, and not knowing what would happen next. Since then, it’s also opened our eyes to some stark statistics – especially around men’s health.

Since the start of the pandemic, it’s clear that:

  • Men are at a much greater risk of death from COVID-19 [1].
  • Male life expectancy has fallen for the first time since records began [2].
  • Access to healthcare has been more challenging than ever — thousands have struggled to get appointments for regular health check-ups, treatments, and medication reviews [3].

COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for men who are black, overweight or have multiple co-morbidities. This risk increases with the number of underlying medical conditions a person has [4]. One recent study found that over a third of British, middle-aged adults have multiple health problems — and it’s something that’s on the rise [5].

We know that January is not known as the most joyous of months, so even though this is a tough topic, we are going to focus on talking you through what could affect men’s health and what you can do about it. Who knows, this might be the reminder you need to check in on your health.

THE LONGEVITY GAP

Between 2018 and 2020, life expectancy in the UK at birth was 82.9 for women and 79 for men [6] — a difference of about 5%.

This isn’t completely new information. Records show that women have always lived longer than men, in every country, in every year. Such a robust pattern is unusual in human biology. Even in the 19th century, where infectious diseases were widespread and tended to kill men and women non-selectively in their 30s and 40s, the longevity gap was about two years in the UK [7] — women still had the upper hand by about 5%.

The fact that this gender survival gap exists, even among babies [7], means there’s probably more to it than men’s inability to read instruction manuals, the unparalleled stress of delivering a wedding speech, or the overwhelming lure to all things fast, dangerous, and on fire.

WHY DO WOMEN LIVE LONGER?

There are lots of wild theories and possible explanations for this. But we’ll start with the most fundamental difference: the Y chromosome.

GENETICS

As humans, we have 23 pairs of chromosomes that contain our DNA. Women have two X chromosomes, but men have just one X chromosome and a Y chromosome, which is much smaller and contains only about 70 genes (compared to roughly 1,000 genes — goodbye multitasking). So, what are men missing out on?

Theories on how genetics may influence the longevity gap [8]:

  • Women mount stronger immune responses than men.
  • Higher levels of oestrogen in women provide a protective effect at a cellular level.
  • Mother’s curse — this theory explains how mitochondrial DNA, present in eggs but not sperm, is only selected based on excluding harmful mutations that affect women. As such, any male-unfriendly mutations could remain as the mitochondrial DNA is passed on [9].
  • Having two copies of the X chromosome means women can supposedly inactivate the faultier one or at least mask any mutations with the healthier X chromosome [10].

But much of this evidence is unsupported or poorly researched, and it’s generally agreed that genetics is only one side of the story.

SOCIAL AND LIFESTYLE FACTORS

Men are more likely to die from accidents, suicide, heart disease, cancer, and pneumonia [8].

Social and lifestyle factors that tend to have a bias towards men could explain many of these causes of mortality. Let’s look at some of these factors and how you can prevent them to improve your overall health and wellbeing.

Body weight

In England, 67% of men are overweight or obese, compared to 62% of women [11].

Check your body mass index (BMI) and, if you’re overweight, consider starting the NHS weight loss programme. Alternatively, take up a sport, join a gym, or start running, cycling, or swimming. If you’ve not run before, the Couch to 5K app is an excellent way to ease yourself in.

Diet

The Mediterranean diet and plant-based diets can improve your heart health along with a host of other benefits. We have an entire hub dedicated to vegan and plant-based health.

You can also make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need with our Advanced Nutrition Blood Test.

Cholesterol

Men are more likely to have high cholesterol, and typically develop heart disease seven to ten years earlier than women [12].

It’s a good idea to check your cholesterol level, especially if you have a family history of heart disease or stroke. Once you know your numbers, here are some ways you can lower your cholesterol.

Unfortunately for some people, exercise and a healthy diet alone might not be enough to lower cholesterol into a healthy range. In these cases, you might be offered medication like a statin.

Alcohol

In 2017 in England, 24% of men drank over the recommended 14 units, versus 11% of women [13]. Men are also more likely than women to use almost all types of recreational drugs [14].

Excessive drinking contributes to:

  • Alcohol-related injuries and violence
  • Liver disease
  • Cancer
  • Road traffic accidents

Cutting down alcohol lowers blood pressure and blood sugar levels and reduces the build-up of fatty deposits in the liver. Try to avoid exceeding the recommended 14 units per week.

If you’re concerned you may be drinking too much, Alcohol Change UK provides tools and strategies to support you on your journey. Our Liver Blood Test can also be useful to detect signs of fatty liver disease and inflammation caused by alcohol.

Smoking

In 2018, 16.5% of men smoked compared to 13% of women [15] — that’s over a million more men smoking than women.

Smoking increases your risk of many conditions, including:

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Lung disease

After a year of quitting smoking, you would cut your risk of heart disease by half. And after 15 years, it would be similar to that of someone who had never smoked. The NHS stop smoking services offers some great advice.

Mental health

Men are notorious for hiding their feelings. The data shows that men are much less likely to seek medical support for mental health problems than women [16].

Suicide in England and Wales is three times more common in men than in women, and this gap has increased over time. Devastatingly, suicide is now the leading cause of death for men under 50 [17].

If you’re struggling with low mood, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts, please talk to someone. Being male should not be a barrier to support. If you find it hard to open up to friends or family, you might find Mind’s online resources helpful.

WHAT ELSE CAN I DO?

Disruptions to healthcare have also made routine check-ups more challenging to arrange, but there are ways you can optimise and even check your health from home.

Medichecks takes men’s health seriously. We have a comprehensive blood test — our Advanced Well Man Blood Test — specifically designed for men and the health concerns they face.

This all-in-one health check tells you about your:

  • Cholesterol status
  • Liver and kidney health
  • Risk of gout and diabetes
  • Vitamin and mineral levels
  • Thyroid and testosterone hormones

Knowing your health inside out allows you to work specifically on the areas that need it.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The pandemic has reminded us of the discrepancies between women’s and men’s health. It’s also shown us that, as a nation, many of us have multiple health conditions that can put us at serious risk.

But please don’t take this as complete doom and gloom. Yes, statistics are helpful, but if anything, this is just a good reason to reflect on your own wellbeing to see if there are any positive lifestyle changes that you can make to keep in the best possible shape.

So, the final question to ask yourself is: can I use this as my motivation to start living a healthier life?


References

  1. Global Health 50/50. n.d. Men, sex, gender and COVID-19 | Global Health 50/50. [online] Available at: <https://globalhealth5050.org/the-sex-gender-and-covid-19-project/men-sex-gender-and-covid-19/> [Accessed 26 November 2021].
  2. Office for National Statistics. 2021. National life tables – life expectancy in the UK - Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at: <https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/lifeexpectancies/bulletins/nationallifetablesunitedkingdom/2018to2020> [Accessed 26 November 2021].
  3. Healthwatch. 2021. GP access during COVID-19 A review of our evidence: April 2019 – December 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthwatch.co.uk/sites/healthwatch.co.uk/files/20210215%20GP%20access%20during%20COVID19%20report%20final_0.pdf> [Accessed 26 November 2021].
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021. COVID-19 and Your Health. [online] Available at: <https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-medical-conditions.html#obesity> [Accessed 26 November 2021].
  5. Centre for Longitudinal Studies. 2021. Over a third of adults have multiple health problems in midlife. [online] Available at: <https://cls.ucl.ac.uk/over-a-third-of-adults-have-multiple-health-problems-in-midlife/> [Accessed 26 November 2021].
  6. Office for National Statistics. 2021. National life tables – life expectancy in the UK - Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at: <https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/lifeexpectancies/bulletins/nationallifetablesunitedkingdom/2018to2020> [Accessed 26 November 2021].
  7. The King's Fund. 2021. What is happening to life expectancy in England?. [online] Available at: <https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/publications/whats-happening-life-expectancy-england> [Accessed 26 November 2021].
  8. Steven N. Austad. 2006. Why women live longer than men: Sex differences in longevity. , 3(2), 0–92. doi:10.1016/s1550-8579(06)80198-1 
  9. M. Florencia Camus; David J. Clancy; Damian K. Dowling. 2012. Mitochondria, Maternal Inheritance, and Male Aging. , 22(18), –. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.07.018 
  10. Schneider, J.; Cebrat, S.; Stauffer, D. 1998. Why do Women Live Longer than Men? A Monte Carlo Simulation of Penna-type Models with X and Y Chromosomes. International Journal of Modern Physics C, 9(5), 721–725. doi:10.1142/S0129183198000625
  11. NHS Digital. 2021. Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, England, 2020 - NHS Digital. [online] NHS Digital. Available at: <https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet/england-2020> [Accessed 26 November 2021].
  12. Maas, A. H., & Appelman, Y. E. 2010. Gender differences in coronary heart disease. Netherlands heart journal : monthly journal of the Netherlands Society of Cardiology and the Netherlands Heart Foundation18(12), 598–602.
  13. Drinkaware. 2019. Alcohol Consumption UK. [online] Available at: <https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/research/research-and-evaluation-reports/alcohol-consumption-uk> [Accessed 26 November 2021].
  14. National Institute of Health. 2020. Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use | National Institute on Drug Abuse. [online] Available at: <https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/substance-use-in-women/sex-gender-differences-in-substance-use> [Accessed 26 November 2021].
  15. Office for National Statistics. 2019. Adult smoking habits in the UK - Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at: <https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandlifeexpectancies/bulletins/adultsmokinghabitsingreatbritain/2018#characteristics-of-current-cigarette-smokers-in-the-uk> [Accessed 26 November 2021].
  16. Mental Health Foundation. n.d. Survey of people with lived experience of mental health problems reveals men less likely to seek medical support. [online] Available at: <https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/news/survey-people-lived-experience-mental-health-problems-reveals-men-less-likely-seek-medical> [Accessed 26 November 2021].
  17. Office for National Statistics. 2020. Leading causes of death, UK - Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at: <https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/causesofdeath/articles/leadingcausesofdeathuk/2001to2018> [Accessed 26 November 2021].