4 Health Threats for Men

Arm yourself with information for prevention

4 Health Threats for Men

Major threats to men’s health include heart disease, liver disease, cancer, and diabetes. Thankfully, information can empower men to make healthy decisions.

According to a survey by U.S. family physicians, 36 percent of men polled said they avoid the doctor until they are extremely sick. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seemed to be the prevailing attitude, one that can place health and well-being last on a man’s to-do list.

Four major threats to men’s health come from cardiovascular disease, liver disease, cancer, and diabetes. The news is not all bad, though. Health information can give men the power they need to make life-altering decisions.

Cardiovascular disease

What is it?

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is among the leading causes of death in Canada—for both men and women. CVD encompasses a range of diseases and injuries to the cardiovascular system—composed of the heart and the arteries and veins that transport blood throughout the body and within the brain.

What are the causes?

Heart diseases and stroke can be caused by the same problem: atherosclerosis. This is the buildup of plaque in the walls of arteries, which can reduce blood flow and eventually lead to heart disease or stroke.

When plaque builds up and hardens, arteries may become so narrow that blood flow to the heart is impeded, causing angina, which is experienced as pain or discomfort in the chest. If a piece of the arterial plaque breaks away it can cause a blood clot that may block the supply of blood to the heart, causing a heart attack, or to the brain, causing a stroke.

The risk factors for heart disease and stroke include smoking, excess alcohol use, physical inactivity, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, being overweight or obese, and diabetes.

In most cases, regular monitoring of these risk factors and understanding cholesterol (and triglycerides), blood pressure, and blood sugar levels can often steer a man in the direction of healthier lifestyle choices, which can translate into better cardiovascular health.

How can we modify our risk?

Diet modifications, exercise, supplementation, and monitoring key markers of CVD can play a significant role in prevention.

The Mediterranean diet is associated with overall better heart health. A recent Cochrane review of 11 research trials, including a total of 52,044 participants, concluded that following a Mediterranean diet may result in lower risk of CVD.

The Mediterranean diet is described as high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Olive oil is included as an important source of fat while dairy products, fish, poultry, and wine are consumed in low to moderate amounts.

Supplements can help boost nutritional deficits and support cardiovascular health.

  • Fish oils can lower triglyceride levels by about 30 percent in those with elevated triglycerides and can help reduce markers of inflammation and elevated blood pressure.
  • Phytosterols can lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels by up to 15 percent.
  • Soy isoflavones may reduce both total and LDL cholesterol.
  • Coenzyme Q10 helps support cardiovascular health.
  • Magnesium helps relax the arteries and allow for better blood flow to the heart muscle.

Exercise can also have a strong protective effect against cardiovascular disease. The Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more. In addition, strength activities should be added at least twice per week.

Liver disease

What is it?

The liver is a complex processing organ that is involved in more than 500 different functions critical to good health. Some of the most vital roles involve fighting off infection, neutralizing toxins, manufacturing proteins and hormones, controlling blood sugar, and helping to clot the blood. There are more than 100 different forms of liver disease.

What are the causes?

Liver disease can be caused by a number of different factors, ranging from viruses and genetics to toxins and poor nutrition. Some more frequently diagnosed liver diseases are caused by one of a number of factors:

  • viral hepatitis (hepatitis A, B, and C)
  • obesity, poor nutrition, sedentary lifestyle (fatty liver disease)
  • alcohol (alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver cancer)
  • drugs and toxins (chemical, environmental, et cetera)

Understanding risk factors and making healthy lifestyle choices can help prevent most common forms of liver disease.

How can we modify our risk?

Diet is an important factor in liver health since the liver is intricately involved in processing nutrients. When the amount of fat we ingest exceeds what is required by the body, the excess fat is stored in the liver. When the liver accumulates too much fat, the liver can become inflamed, and scarring (cirrhosis) can result.

Supplements available to help boost liver health include the following:

  • Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) has been shown to have a strong supportive effect on the liver. Seven types of compounds known as flavoligands help to inhibit free-radical damage on the liver from toxic metabolites such as alcohol and chemicals.
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine as a detoxifying agent and diuretic. Modern animal studies suggest that dandelion reverses hepatitis-induced symptoms by reducing inflammation.
  • Resveratrol’s antioxidant properties have shown promising results in animal studies in decreasing the inflammatory response and reducing fat deposits in the liver.
  • Beets (or beetroot juice) are favourite detoxifying foods because of their betalain pigments. Evidence suggests betaine compounds in beets can protect the liver when it is under duress from inflammation.

Exercise also plays a key role in liver health by helping us maintain a healthy weight and boost our immune system to keep disease at bay.

Alcohol should be enjoyed in moderation. Repeated heavy alcohol intake over a period of years takes a toll on liver functioning, which can result in fatty liver, liver inflammation, permanent scarring (cirrhosis), or even liver cancer.

Toxins, whether ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin, are all processed by the liver. By living organically and being aware of and, as much as possible, avoiding environmental toxins, we help our liver by decreasing its toxic load.

Cancer

What is it?

Put simply, cancer happens when cells in our body become abnormal and then grow more abnormal cells to form a growth or tumour. In Canada, cancer is the number-one cause of death for men, with lung, colorectal, and prostate cancer the leading types.

What are the causes?

Although cancer can occur at any age, generally men over the age of 50 are at greatest risk. According to the American Association for Cancer Research, tobacco use is responsible for 33 percent of preventable cancer diagnoses.

Obesity and being overweight is responsible for 20 percent of cancer diagnoses. As well, a 2014 study linked obesity with the risk for high-grade progressive prostate cancer. Ten percent of preventable cancer diagnoses can be attributed to poor diet and inactivity—also predictors of obesity.

Stress has been studied for its relationship to cancer risk; however, scientists caution that many variables, such as exposure to toxic work environments and prolonged shift work, can complicate a true connection.

Sunlight in the form of UV radiation (also from tanning booths) can be responsible for several types of skin cancers, depending upon lifetime exposures and other risk factors such as skin colour and family history.

How can we modify our risk?

Understanding signs and symptoms is essential when it comes to cancer detection.

  • Lung cancer warning signs include persistent cough, coughing up blood, and pain.
  • Colorectal cancer may be suspected at signs of a change in bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation, blood in the stool, and persistent discomfort in the form of cramps or pain.
  • Prostate cancer signs include frequent urination, blood in the urine, and difficulty maintaining a steady stream of urine.

Lifestyle choices such as healthy eating, regular physical exercise, stress reduction, and limiting UV exposure can help reduce the risk of cancer.

Smoking, if you do, is the first thing you should change to reduce your cancer risk. Avoiding second-hand smoke is also important.

Diet is crucial in reducing our lifetime risk of cancer. Certain types of food have been linked to specific types of cancer. For example, consuming too much red meat or processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer, while cured or smoked meat, pickled foods, and high salt intake are linked to stomach cancer.

In general, however, eating a healthy diet that includes whole foods in the form of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lean meats and fish is the best way to protect ourselves from cancer.

Supplements have also shown promise in helping to reduce cancer risk.

  • Multivitamins can help us stock up on the essential nutrients needed to support our body’s immune system and prevent diseases such as cancer.
  • Vitamin D, found in low levels, has been linked to colorectal and breast cancers.
  • Vitamins D and A may work synergistically in helping to reduce lung cancer risk in smokers, according to a 2014 study.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids may be linked to lower prostate cancer risk.
  • Green tea, which can be consumed as a drink or as a supplement, has been linked to reduced risk of lung, colorectal, and prostate cancers.

Exercise is important to maintain a normal BMI for maximum cancer protection. Getting active for at least 30 minutes every day can mean a world of difference.

Reduce stress to modify risk of developing cancer (as well as cardiovascular disease). Although men often overlook stress-reduction methods as an important part of daily life, more men are engaging in yoga, meditation, and psychotherapy, activities that can have a profound effect on a man’s health.

Diabetes

What is it?

Diabetes diagnoses have been increasing steadily in Canada, with more than 1 million men diagnosed last year. In type 2 diabetes, the body can’t use the insulin that is released (insulin sensitivity) or does not make enough insulin to help move glucose into cells where it is needed for energy, resulting in buildup of glucose in the blood. A person with uncontrolled type 2 diabetes is at risk of developing complications, including damage to the heart, kidneys, nerves, and eyes.

What are the causes?

There are a number of risk factors for diabetes, including genetics, having high blood pressure and/or cholesterol levels, or being overweight. Our risk of developing type 2 diabetes also increases with age.

Obesity and being overweight is a significant risk. Men, as it turns out, tend to store fat around organs more readily than women. Fat stored within the abdomen around the organs, called visceral fat, hinders normal function of vital organs such as the liver, pancreas, and intestines. Carrying this kind of fat is linked to insulin resistance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes.

Inactivity also places us at greater risk of type 2 diabetes because less glucose is used as energy, creating problems with weight control and leaving cells less sensitive to insulin.

How can we modify our risk?

Having a normal body mass index and engaging in physical activity are the most important factors in preventing diabetes.

Diet is key in maintaining a low risk for diabetes.

Trading refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and rice or cookies and cakes, for whole grains can dramatically reduce your risk of developing diabetes. Dietary fibre is also a key player in reducing diabetes risk.

Cutting out sugary or sweetened drinks, such as soft drinks, and opting instead for water, coffee, and tea can also increase your chances of avoiding diabetes. Sugary drinks not only contribute to weight gain, but also can lead to chronic inflammation, high triglyceride and decreased HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, and increased insulin resistance, each of which are known diabetes risk factors.

Avoiding red meat and processed meat (bacon, hot dogs, deli meats) can dramatically reduce your risk of diabetes. A large meta-analysis involving 440,000 people found a 51 percent increased risk of developing diabetes with daily intake of red/processed meats, but those who opted instead for healthier proteins (nuts, poultry, fish) lowered diabetes risk by up to 35 percent.

Supplements are important allies in protecting against diabetes.

  • B vitamins assist in optimal utilization of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
  • Gymnema sylvestre contains gymnemic acids, which help transport glucose into the cells for added blood sugar control.
  • Magnesium deficiency can cause insulin resistance; supplementing with magnesium may help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Chromium is required for binding insulin to cell membranes.

Exercise helps the body improve its ability to utilize insulin and absorb glucose, putting less stress on insulin-making cells. Conversely, sitting too much and watching too much TV are linked to a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes (as well as cardiovascular disease). In general, the best advice is to “walk more, sit less, and exercise.”

Smoking has also been linked to diabetes risk—along with its obvious connections to cancer and heart disease. If you smoke, do everything you can to stop—and avoid second-hand smoke wherever possible.

In a nutshell

Knowledge is power. For men, knowing the risk factors for many of the major health threats and understanding how to modify those risks can help to achieve overall well-being and optimal health. The keys to good health are, simply, to stay active, get plenty of rest, and eat a healthy whole foods diet.

Prostate cancer screening questioned

Screening for prostate cancer has relied on the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test, which looks for protein levels in the blood produced by the prostate gland. These levels are often elevated in the case of prostate cancer.

However, recent guidelines from the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal recommend not screening with the PSA test based on studies indicating no evidence that PSA screening reduces overall prostate cancer mortality and that screening and active treatment can lead to harm.

These guidelines have generated controversy, including a strong statement from Prostate Cancer Canada that PSA testing is beneficial “when performed appropriately.” Speak witn your health care practitioner to learn more.

Seeking help

From a health care practitioner’s perspective, the following tips can make it easier for men to access health care.

  • Regular visits to a health care practitioner can offer insight into needed lifestyle changes.
  • Regular physicals and testing can often catch red flags for further investigation.
  • Health questions are never insignificant and should be asked at the first opportunity possible.
  • Waiting until symptoms become unbearable can spell trouble.

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