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Should We Pay More Attention to Men's Health?

By Marty Nemko

Men die six years sooner than women. There are more than four widows for every widower.

So, it would only seem fair that more health research and health education dollars be spent on men than on women. Yet in the budget of every federal health agency, more money is spent on women’s health than on men’s. There are seven federal health agencies specifically for women. Not one for men. 39 of the 50 states have an office of women’s health, only six have one for men. A search of more than 3,000 medical journals listed in Index Medicus found that 23 articles were written on women’s health for each one written on men’s. Although a woman is only 14 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than a man is from prostate cancer, funding for breast cancer research is 660 percent greater than funding for prostate cancer research. Even the post office has gotten into the act: there is only one disease for which you can buy a postage stamp and the profits will go to research to cure the disease: breast cancer, even though heart disease kills millions more men prematurely. Before the age of 65, men die of heart attacks at three times the rate of women.

The bias against men is not limited to government-funded efforts. Even though men die younger and men’s last years are spent in worse health than women’s, most media and private sector attention goes to women’s health: features on menopause on CNN, articles on osteoporosis in the Kaiser Permanente newsletter, and nonstop corporate-sponsored fundraisers for breast cancer: runs for breast cancer, walks for breast cancer, even go to an A’s game for breast cancer. Baseball, a game played by and watched primarily by men, has a Breast Cancer Day, but not a Heart Attack Day, even though millions more people—primarily men—die prematurely of heart disease. Yet when the media pays attention to heart disease, most of it is focused on women, even though women get heart disease long after the average man is dead.

Defenders of the bias offer excuses such as, “Men got most of the research money in the past. Let’s even the score.” The implication is that researchers were interested in making only men healthy. Medical research was done mainly on men because such research was often done on volunteers from prison or the military, the vast majority of whom were men. And in other studies, men were preferred because of fear that unborn babies could be damaged or that menstrual hormonal changes during the study would affect the results. It was believed—and for the most part, it has proven true--that the results of studies using men would be generalizable to women. And did men inadvertently benefit from having been guinea pigs? Men still live six years shorter than women, a gap that, over the past four decades, has decreased by just one year.

Another excuse for the underspending on men’s health is, “Men just need to organize like we women do.” I don’t hear women making that argument to other groups. Could you imagine feminists responding to African-Americans’ concerns about lack of funding with, “Blacks just need to organize like we women do”?

Most often, underspending on men’s health is justified by blaming men themselves for their early demise: “If they only saw their doctor more often.” Fact is, far more potent than doctor visits in staving off the major killers (cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes) are avoiding overweight and not smoking. Yet women, not men, have higher rates of obesity and smoking. Despite that, I have not heard feminists or liberals saying, “It’s women’s own fault. Let’s not fund research on women and heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.” They want ever more money spent on women’s health. Nor do liberals say, “AIDS is caused by careless behavior so we shouldn’t spend money on AIDS.”

Only when straight men are involved, do the liberals sound like conservatives, telling men to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. With women, gays and minorities, the message is, “It takes a village.”

A fair society cannot have it both ways. It either needs to decide to allocate resources based on a group’s deficits or spend in proportion to the population: men 49% and women 51%, minorities 25% and whites 75%, heterosexuals 98% and homosexuals 2%. A double standard that hurts straight men is grossly unfair.

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