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Health Perspective

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Why do some men wait until calamity strikes before they take their health seriously? "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus" has become the mantra of modern-day gender relations. The popular consensus seems to be that we should celebrate, not lament, our differences. All well and good.

Why do some men wait until calamity strikes before they take their health seriously?

"Men are from Mars, women are from Venus" has become the mantra of modern-day gender relations. The popular consensus seems to be that we should celebrate, not lament, our differences.

All well and good. But whatever planet they may come from, both genders have to abide by the same rules governing good health.

A little-heralded report released last year by Statistics Canada, "The Health Divide: How the Sexes Differ," revealed striking discrepancies between men and women in several key determinants of health. Based on a survey of more than 17,626 Canadians from 1998 to 1999, it found that women were much more conscious of good nutrition (taking into account factors such as overall health, weight and risks of disease associated with certain foods), more likely to supplement their diet with vitamins, and more often at an appropriate weight for their height.

Men took bigger gambles with their health, according to the report. Through overeating and binge drinking (defined as the consumption of more than five alcoholic drinks in one sitting), they increased their relative chances of succumbing to heart disease and diabetes, as well as their odds of dying before age 75. They also engaged more frequently in physically dangerous activities, making them likelier candidates for car accidents and other fatal mishaps.

Unlike men, who have a high incidence of serious health problems, women are much more likely to see doctors, seek help with their emotional-health issues and consult with natural-health practitioners. Men, on the other hand, were more prone to ignoring problematic symptoms and showed a greater aversion to using health services of any kind. "Compared to men," the report concluded, "women take better care of themselves."

The proof is in the pudding: women continue to live longer than men. The latest available data from Statistics Canada puts the average life expectancy for women at 81.4 years--well above the 75.8 years projected for men. Even when battling a terminal illness, women generally outlast men.

"The Health Divide" report suggested that Canadian society as a whole needs to reach out to men "to encourage more awareness of the links between diet and disease, and discourage binge drinking and other potentially harmful practices that result in higher rates of dying." As advocates of healthy living, we have our work cut out for us.

More proof of that came with another survey by Statistics Canada, which added statistical heft to the command, "Eat your veggies!" Released earlier this year, the survey determined that, on average, women eat more fruits and vegetables than men, regardless of other factors such as income or education. Even more fascinating was the finding that men who strive for a more balanced diet usually learn about the importance of good nutrition the hard way: by being diagnosed with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer or another serious health problem.

Why do men wait until calamity strikes before they take their health seriously? Maybe it's a persistent sense of immortality they felt first during puberty. Or perhaps they still think that personal health is a female fixation--that "real men" accept whatever life brings them with a stiff upper lip. (For more on cultural notions of masculinity and the ways in which they sandbag men's lives, see this month's Emotional Health column.) Whatever the reason, these attitudes are dated and can be downright deadly. No, we can't choose our gender, but we do have a say in our health. And, increasingly, it's what we make it.

As beings who, apparently, come from different regions of the galaxy, I think we should meet in the middle and agree to look after ourselves, each other and Planet Earth.

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