How do Australia's men get healthier? The answer to all such questions seems to start with better information. Or, if you like, better education.
Males would look in vain for much useful stuff in the mainstream media. Yes, Australian Ninja Warrior was a great success, by all accounts. It rated its socks off. And maybe it encouraged males to get out and exercise. Younger males (anything from four up to about forty four) and even some guys in their seventies found it thrilling. It was just a bit disappointing, as we all found, when nobody won! A bit like a long and tedious game of cricket, really.
Men's Health magazine can have some useful information. But it seems clearly aimed at guys who are desperate to look like The Bachelor men. And not the average Aussie guy. My grandson said to me, "you'll never look like that ,'cause you're about thirty years older than most of them". I grunted assent - I knew he'd made a valid point. Age counts, let alone an average set of genetics and a more than ordinary amount of laziness.
But I'd bet most guys can only dream of having the abs of iron, pecs of steel and all the other better-than-average lifestyle we assume goes with that kind of body. So this type of magazine doesn't do a great deal to create a healthier life for the average Aussie.
Then there's the ABC with its health reports. But they usually show us women talking about women's health. Any feature on cancer is far more likely to deal with breast cancer than prostate cancer or testicular cancer. That leaves a couple of TV shows and a university-based journal. And so those of us who read The Conversation find far more useful, practical information on health than we find elsewhere about how any of us can become healthier. In sum, most Australian men don't have good access to the best kind of information to improve their health and well-being.
Change in the air
Thus it was with a sense of excitement that I learned of a new development. The Federal Department of Health has provided a men's health overarching body, the Australian Men's Health Forum, with $970,000 over three years. It asks the AMHF to improve its website, increase its promotion of activities, increase its media links, and provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health worker scholarships. More details are readily available on the AMHF website. Glen Poole, originally based in the UK, has been appointed full-time Development Officer. He has much experience as a practitioner, consultant and advocate for men's health.
Ten killer facts about men
AMHF has listed ten 'killer facts about men's health' in Australia, as follows:
- Boys born in Australia can expect to die four years younger than girls, on average.
- 500 people a week die from potentially avoidable causes. Nearly two thirds of them are men.
- Seven out of 10 young people aged 15-24 who die each year are male.
- 96% of people who die at work are men.
- Eight people a day die by suicide. Six of them are male
- Men and boys account for 73% of road traffic accidents.
- Men under 65 are four times more likely to die from heart disease than women.
- Cancer kills 100 more men than women a week.
- Indigenous men and boys die 10 years younger than non-Indigenous males, on average.
- Women's health receives four times more research funding than men's health.
The contrast between men's health and women's health might seem unfortunate. After all, we share the same country. Men and women live in families together, of various kinds. Yet it's still true that if we are to improve health for the ordinary Aussie guy (let's call him Jim) we will have to work through a small number of channels.; and women are part of the process.
First, the GP that Jim goes to is one part of the puzzle. We encourage guys to go more often to see the GP, and encourage both of them to talk. Most of us males need to prepare carefully for a doctor's visit; I often go in with a list. The man's partner is also very important. Someone who prods Jim to have that lump checked will probably be good for him. Someone who suggests that salad is better for him than a plateful of chips will do him good.
And Jim's local chemist can be helpful, if he's not too busy flogging body-building products, perfumes and other stuff.
Last, some useful information must be important. And that brings us back to the media.
A wish list
So here's my own list of what could be done.
First, we will have to spend time and money pressuring the mainstream media to do more for men's health. Perhaps this might be near the top of the agenda, as people regularly watch TV and do listen to radio. 'Dr Google' is very much used by guys wanting to know what could be wrong. Sadly, he/she isn't terribly reliable.
Second, some solid research could be done on how men think about their health. How do we get them to realise that without good health, most of their lives get spent 'catching up' ? Some action research might be tried, testing some innovative approaches to better health. Men's sheds show us that we can reach ordinary guys, if only we know how to do it.
Third, how do we educate health professionals to better listen to men? Many of us know that men listen in ways characteristically different from women. Men talk shoulder-to-shoulder more easily than in any face-to-face situation, especially if it feels like confrontation.
Fourth, what should we do to improve men's lives in their sixties and seventies, now men seem to be living longer - if they can survive the perils noted above? That might involve a hard look at nursing homes: not a happy place for most men to spend their last years, from what we hear from the ABC and Fairfax Media.
Fifth, surely it's in most people's interest to get food labelled in a simple and accurate way so that better eating choices can be made by consumers.
Sixth, we will have to work a lot harder to get kids exercising. Boys who are stuck on electronic devices turn into inactive men. Yet backyards are disappearing in Sydney and Melbourne, and more and more live in apartments. We'll have to find places for people to exercise and make it easier and cheaper for them.
All in all, there's much work to be done. But we will have to make a start.