By Mary L. Peppers, Pure Matters

Men tend to put off medical care and overestimate their own health, according to a recent survey commissioned by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). The study’s findings confirm what many health experts -- and many women -- have observed firsthand. When it comes to managing personal health, men are missing the mark. Consequently, men are missing opportunities to detect and address medical problems in their early stages, when many conditions are more treatable and less threatening to overall health.

“One of the biggest obstacles to improving the health of men is men themselves. They don’t make their health a priority,” says AAFP President Rick Kellerman, M.D. “Many men are unaware that simple screening tests and lifestyle changes can dramatically improve their quality of life.”

Survey results

The following are key findings from the AAFP study, conducted by Harris Poll Interactive, which tabulated opinions from 1,111 American men.

Whenever they are sick, in pain, or concerned about their health, 92 percent of the men surveyed said they wait at least a few days “to see if I get better” before seeking medical care or advice. Only 8 percent said they obtain care immediately. Twenty-nine percent reported they wait “as long as possible” before contacting a health care provider.

Fifty-five percent had not received a physical exam from their primary care physician within the past year. Further, almost one in five men surveyed (18 percent) who were age 55 or older had never been screened for colon cancer. Current recommendations are for men ages 50 and older to be screened annually for this potentially life-threatening disease.

Nearly 80 percent of the respondents described their health as being “excellent,” “very good,” or “good.” Despite this self-assessment, 42 percent of respondents acknowledged being diagnosed with at least one of these chronic illnesses: hypertension (28 percent), heart disease (8 percent), arthritis (13 percent), cancer (8 percent), or diabetes (10 percent).

Only 38 percent of survey respondents reported getting regular physical exercise. Twenty-six percent said they did not exercise or work out at all. The CDC estimates that 70 percent of American men are overweight.

What are they thinking?

Fifty-eight percent of the men surveyed cited a range of factors that prevents them from going to the doctor. The most common factor suggests an interesting mind-set -- that a doctor is useful for treating severe illness, but not for providing preventive care or screening for disease.

“I only go the doctor if I am extremely sick,” reported more than one-third of the respondents. An additional 23 percent explained their health care avoidance this way: “I am healthy. I have no reason to go to a doctor.”

Men’s tendency to seek health care services only in “crisis” situations -- and to see themselves as strong and healthy enough to skip checkups and recommended screenings -- is no surprise to psychologists. Numerous studies have concluded that men of all ages are less likely than women to seek help for problems, including physical and emotional health issues. This is a learned behavior, some experts say. Many men are raised to act stoic, tough, and independent -- to stay in control and hide their vulnerability. Consequently, they come to view themselves as immune to disease. Men also may fear that others will interpret their nonemergency doctor’s visits as unmanly or weak, especially if the men around them also avoid preventive medical care.

Screenings men can’t live without

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and other medical organizations encourage men to undergo regular health screenings to detect serious health problems early. Men should ask their doctor about tests for the following:

  • High cholesterol. Beginning at age 35, men should get their cholesterol checked regularly -- at least every five years. Men younger than age 35 could benefit from cholesterol testing if they smoke, have high blood pressure or diabetes, or have a family history of heart disease.
  • High blood pressure. All men should get their blood pressure checked at least every two years -- or more often, if recommended by a health care provider.
  • Diabetes. Men should schedule a blood glucose test for diabetes if they have elevated cholesterol or blood pressure. They should also have this test if they notice symptoms of diabetes, such as frequent thirst and urination, fatigue, and blurred vision. Healthy men should get screened every three years, starting at age 50.
  • Colorectal cancer. Screenings should begin at age 50, or earlier if there is a personal or family history of colorectal polyps. Tests for hidden fecal blood should be conducted annually. Your health care provider may order additional screening tests, such as a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy.
  • Speak with your doctor about the right method of screening for you. The age at which you begin screening depends on several things, including family history and your ethnicity. You and your doctor will decide which screening method (physical exam or blood test), if any, is best for your situation.

Time for a new attitude

Cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, stroke, and diabetes are among the leading causes of death for American men. All can be prevented with a combination of a healthy lifestyle, regular medical care, and heeding recommendations from a health care provider. Many disorders, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, are “silent” illnesses and do not cause tell-tale symptoms that may prompt a doctor’s visit. Routine checkups and screenings are critical for detecting hidden problems and staying healthy.

Tips for partners

If the man you care about avoids preventive medical visits, don’t give up on encouraging him to put his health first. According to the AAFP men’s health survey, 78 percent of respondents who have a spouse or significant other acknowledge that their partner influences their decision to see the doctor.

For men, it’s time to consider demonstrating strength, wisdom, and leadership in a new way. When tempted to delay a medical visit, consider your value as a provider
and role model. Taking care of yourself enables you to take care of those who mean the most to you.