In general, being an American male is hazardous to your health. Men in the United States die an average of five years before women do. That’s coupled with the fact that the country is already an outlier when it comes to life expectancy. In other rich countries, such as Iceland, Norway, Japan, and Australia, men live on average eight years longer than they do in the U.S., even though Americans spend more on health care than people in any other country in the world.
Over the past few years, life expectancy of men in the United States has only dipped further. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the life expectancy for men was 75.1 years in the first half of 2020, down 1.2 years from the year before.
So why is being a man in the richest country on Earth so bad for your health, and is there anything we can do about it?
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., killing nearly one in three men, often prematurely. A number of factors are at play, but the high death toll of heart disease is due in large part to poor diet, smoking, obesity, excessive alcohol, stress, lack of exercise, and underlying conditions such as diabetes and kidney problems.
1 in 3
Approximately how many men in the U.S. are killed by heart disease.
Although a family history can also play a role, lifestyle often eats up the largest portion of the heart problem pie, increasing risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which can cause blood clots. These clots block blood flow to the heart, in the case of a heart attack, or blood flow to the brain, in the case of a stroke.
After heart disease, cancer is the second leading cause of death, causing 22.5% of male deaths in the country. Prostate cancer is the biggest killer, with African American and those of Caribbean and African ancestry carrying the largest risk burden. Studies have shown that prostate cancer in these groups tends to be more aggressive and harder to treat, and these men also have less access to care and haven’t been studied as often. Men with a family history are also at increased risk. Depending on your personal risk factors, men should start getting screened by age 50 or earlier using a blood test and a rectal exam. Regular screening for prostate cancer can reduce mortality by 21%.
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer among men. Like heart disease, lifestyle plays a huge role in your risk. Eating a diet high in red meat and processed meat, along with obesity, drinking too much, and not getting enough exercise all increase your risk. The American Cancer Society says that men with an average risk for colorectal cancer should start screening by age 45; regular screening can reduce your risk of dying by 15% to 33%.
Lung and skin cancers present the next greatest risk to men. Lung cancer is largely (though not entirely) preventable by avoiding smoking. Generally, men tend to use tobacco products about 2% more than women, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Skin cancer, however, is much more common in men than women because men are less likely to wear enough sun protection and to get their moles checked regularly. Non-Hispanic white men are more than twice as likely to die from skin cancer compared to women of the same age and race. By age 65, these men are twice as likely to develop melanoma. Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to reduce your risk, including scheduling annual skin checks with your dermatologist, applying broad spectrum SPF sun protection before going out in the sun, and wearing a wide-brimmed hat and SPF clothing.
Besides disease, accidents also claim the lives of many American men. Unintentional injury is the third leading cause of death for men in the United States and the leading cause of death for men under age 44, according to the CDC. These accident-related deaths are mostly caused by poisoning (for example, opioid and alcohol overdoses), car wrecks, falls, and drownings.
Research has shown that biological differences and cultural pressures make men bigger risk-takers than women, leading to more accidental deaths. Men are also 10 times more likely than women to sustain an accidental injury at work, largely because they are more likely to have the types of jobs — in the military, policing, construction, mining, and offshore fishing — that inherently come with a greater risk of accidents.
Additionally, unintentional death often starts with intoxication, and men are much more likely to engage in substance abuse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, of the 91,799 drug-involved overdose deaths reported in the United States in 2020, 69% of those cases occurred among males. In all, 7% of men have an alcohol use disorder, nearly double the percentage of women with the condition. Drugs and alcohol not only contribute to early mortality, but they also cause all sorts of unintended consequences such as — you guessed it — car accidents, drownings, and falls.
Then there’s suicide. Suicide is caused by a host of issues, including mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, and life stressors. And it’s way more common in men.
The suicide rate is 3.7 times higher in men compared to women.
The suicide rate is 3.7 times higher in men compared to women. Although researchers aren’t completely sure why, a number of factors likely play a role. For example, the pressure of masculinity often makes men unwilling to open up to mental health professionals or even loved ones about how they’re feeling. Men are also less likely to have a general primary doctor whom they can turn to for help. And they’re more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, which both increase the risk of dying by suicide.
In the end, being male in America isn’t the best combination for life expectancy. But there’s a lot you can do to increase your odds of living a long and healthy life — eating a balanced diet, drinking in moderation (two drinks or less a day), exercising daily, moderating stress, going to your doctor regularly, and being honest and vulnerable if you’re dealing with anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issues.
We’re all going to die one day — that’s a given — but being a man doesn’t have to be a death sentence.
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