Things men often enjoy: Fantasy football, burgers with the works, action movies and the Three Stooges. Things they tend to hate: Cleaning the garage and medical check-ups… not necessarily in that order.
“Men just don’t like to see the doctor,” says Luis Diez-Morales, MD, chief of General Internal Medicine at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, Conn., whose clinic has about three female patients for every one man.
Women are much more likely than men to visit the doctor for annual examinations and preventive services, a 2014 study cited by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found. And twice as many men as women had no contact with a physician over the course of a year.
Why do men avoid seeing doctors? Their reasons include lack of time and lack of health insurance, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). But many just don’t think they need to unless they’re already sick.
“They say, ‘I know my body and when I’m not doing well. That’s when I come to see you,’ ” Dr. Diez-Morales says.
Of course, that’s not right – ongoing preventive care is one of the most important ways of staying healthy in the first place, he points out. But it’s just one of the harmful myths many men choose to believe about their health.
Are you one of them? Here are some of the most common untruths men hold, and why they’re bad for you… along with advice you can use to keep yourself healthier.
Myth #1: You need to see your doctor only if you’re not feeling well.
Guys who live by this lie are playing Russian roulette with their health, because problems often occur without warning.
For example, you could have “extremely high blood pressure without a single symptom,” Dr. Diez-Morales says.
Same goes for diabetes – a man could have it for 10 to 15 years, as it gradually harms his kidneys, heart or vision, before he notices symptoms such as extreme thirst, Dr. Diez-Morales adds.
Men may also be unaware that they have high levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. That’s why males in their 50s and 60s have high rates of coronary artery disease without symptoms, he says.
What to do: See your physician for annual medical checkups. Get blood pressure readings and blood tests to measure cholesterol and glucose levels, Dr. Diez-Morales advises. Ask what other tests are recommended based on your age and physical condition.
Myth #2: As long as you’re not fat or obese, you can eat as many burgers and fries as you want.
Even skinny men can have cholesterol problems, says Mohamad Sidani, MD, a geriatric medicine specialist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
And when there’s too much cholesterol in your blood – especially the “bad” fraction called LDL-C – it builds up in the walls of your arteries, blocking blood flow, Dr. Sidani says.
“The lower the LDL-C, the less the risk for heart disease,” he notes.
How important is that? Heart disease is responsible for 1 in 4 male deaths in the United States, according to the CDC.
What to do: Even if you’re not overweight, limit your saturated fat intake, especially from processed foods, Dr. Sidani recommends.
Pizza and cheese are the biggest food sources of saturated fat in the U.S. diet, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Instead, focus on heart-friendly fats from foods such as fish, nuts, avocados and olive oil.
You should also eat a healthier diet in general, with more fruits and vegetables, fewer highly processed foods, and without excess calories, the American Heart Association says.
Myth #3: As long as you’re active on weekends, it’s okay to be a couch potato the rest of the week.
You can get by with the “weekend warrior” mentality – working behind a desk from Monday through Friday, then going all-out with sports on Saturday and Sunday – only when you’re young, says Chaun Cox, MD, a Mayo Clinic family physician based in Mankato, Minn.
But those two days aren’t enough to keep you in shape.
During the week, “your muscles can lose conditioning,” Dr. Cox says. “Then you run the risk of injury from the activity itself.”
Another danger: You might strain your heart, potentially leading to a heart attack or stroke, Dr. Cox warns.
What to do: Condition your body on a regular basis. Do at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderately intensive exercise six or seven days a week.
If you’ve been inactive, begin exercising gradually and work your way up to a higher level of intensity, Dr. Cox advises.
An added benefit to regular exercise? You can reduce your risk of a range of health problems, including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Certain types of cancer
- Broken bones from falls
Myth #4: Erectile dysfunction is just a sexual problem.
Not surprisingly, some men consider erectile dysfunction (ED) – the inability to get or maintain an erection – to be an issue that only matters in the bedroom.
But ED also can indicate serious and hidden health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, Dr. Cox says.
If you have diabetes, poor long-term blood sugar control can damage nerves and blood vessels, including the ones needed to get and maintain erections.
ED may also signal high blood pressure or a blocked artery, which can lead to a stroke.
And it can be a sign of depression, which is also a serious condition that requires treatment.
What to do: Don’t ignore erectile issues, or chalk them up to performance anxiety. While occasional ED isn’t uncommon – especially if you’re under stress or with someone new – continued problems should send you to your doctor for a complete checkup.
“Ask why you’re not able to achieve an erection so you can figure out what else you might need to do prevent further problems,” Dr. Cox advises.
Myth # 5: Men don’t get depressed.
While many people think of depression as a women’s issue, it affects almost as many men, according to a 2013 study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. The difference is that men often have different symptoms, and they’re less likely to report them.
Men with depression are more likely to feel tired, angry or irritable, have trouble sleeping, or be self-destructive with work, money, food, drugs, alcohol and relationships, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
And only 4 out of 10 men who experience depression or anxiety seek treatment, according to a 2015 CDC study of 21,000 males ages 18 to 44.
As a result, depression extracts an “invisible toll,” says Jacob Messing, MD, a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
What to do: Ask yourself if you have any of these symptoms, the NIMH says:
- Feeling sad or “empty”
- Feeling hopeless, irritable, anxious, or angry
- Lacking of interest in work, family or once-pleasurable activities, including sex
- Feeling very tired
- Not being able to concentrate or remember details
- Not being able to sleep, or sleeping too much
- Overeating, or not wanting to eat at all
- Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems
- Inability to meet the responsibilities of work, caring for family, or other important activities
If so, don’t assume they’re problems you just have to live with, or try to fix them on your own. Ask your doctor for a referral to a psychiatrist or psychotherapist.
Myth #6: It’s natural for men to gain weight and lose muscle mass as they age.
If you have a spare tire and can barely walk upstairs without getting winded, don’t blame the candles on your birthday cake.
“When that happens, it tends to be because of lifestyle,” Dr. Cox says.
Men often exercise less and become more sedentary as they age, he explains.
Yes, “our bodies change as we age, and a 20-year-old is different than a 50- or 60-year-old body,” he says. “But if we just sit there as we age, everything will atrophy.”
Your risk of chronic diseases rises, too: Sedentary men are more prone to type 2 diabetes, obesity, sleep apnea and hypertension, he warns.
Plus, gaining weight adds stress on your body, heart, lungs and joints.
What to do: Think of eating well and working out as your fountain of youth – or, at least, as a way to stave off the difficulties of age.
To protect and build muscle mass, older adults should practice resistance exercise and get 1 to 1.3 grams of protein per kilograms of body weight daily, according to Harvard Medical School.
Before starting your exercise routine, see your doctor – then get help from a personal trainer or other expert to create a safe and effective workout program.
Myth #7: Men don’t get osteoporosis.
This disease – characterized by a loss of bone mass and density – isn’t confined to women, contrary to popular belief.
But while women often develop osteoporosis after menopause, at around at age 65, men’s bones tend to weaken about 10 years later, explains Marcia Stefanick, PhD, a professor of Medicine at Stanford Prevention Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif.
“It’s more an age than a gender issue,” Stefanick explains.
But since men believe they’re not vulnerable to the condition, they often resist doing anything to prevent it, she says.
That’s dangerous, because a third of all hip fractures happen in men, Stefanick says. Those fractures raise the chance of dying for both men and women over 50 – for reasons that may include increased frailty and related medical conditions – and the increased risk is even higher for men, she adds.
What to do: To protect your bones, men over 50 need 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium – preferably from foods such as dark leafy vegetables, sardines and dairy products, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). Depending on your blood levels, you may also need a vitamin D supplement – usually 600 to 1,000 IU of the D3 form.
Here’s another reason you need to exercise. Both resistance exercise (such as weight-lifting) and activities that put weight on your body (such as tennis or dancing) exert force on your bones, prompting them to build more mass, NIAMS explains.
If you’re over 75 – or have risk factors such as a family history of osteoporosis or previous bone fractures – ask your doctor if you should have a bone-density test, Harvard Medical School suggests.
Myth #8: Alzheimer’s disease impacts only elderly men.
Men in their late 40s to early 50s can develop early-onset Alzheimer’s dementia, says Alireza Atri, MD, PhD, a cognitive neurologist at the Ray Dolby Brain Health Center at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.
Of the 200,000 to 300,000 people with early-onset dementia in the U.S., about one-third are men, according to Alzheimer’s Association estimates.
Dementia can develop insidiously over five to 10 years; it’s characterized by changes in memory, attention and mood, Dr. Atri says. But early-onset Alzheimer’s is often initially mistaken for psychiatric or mood disorders.
“Someone starts having some changes in their mood, can’t sleep and suffers from anxiety, [and] they think it’s psychiatric,” Dr. Atri says. “At work, people might cover for them.”
Some patients are actually happy when they finally learn they have Alzheimer’s, he says: “They find out it’s a medical issue and they’re not crazy.”
What to do: Scientists don’t know how to prevent the disease yet. So the best strategy is to adopt a healthy lifestyle, Dr. Atri says.
That means exercising the body and brain, engaging with people socially, lowering stress levels and maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
See your doctor if you notice problems with memory or other cognitive functions, changes in mood and personality, or find yourself withdrawing from activities and socializing, the Alzheimer’s Association recommends.
Myth #9: Low testosterone levels are something you just have to live with.
It’s true that testosterone levels decrease with age, says Michael O’Leary, MD, a urologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. But a healthy man shouldn’t go below “normal” levels – generally thought to be below about 300 nanograms per deciliter of blood.
Those abnormally low levels can cause issues such as fatigue and decreased sex drive, and may increase risk of serious health conditions, including osteoporosis and diabetes.
Luckily, it’s a treatable condition, Dr. O’Leary says.
What to do: To keep your testosterone levels as healthy as possible as you age, avoid excessive weight gain – or lose excess fat if you’re overweight, Dr. O’Leary advises.
“It’s a good idea for men to be as close to their ideal body weight as possible,” he says. “Excess weight increases [the female hormone] estrogen and decreases testosterone.”
If you notice changes in sexual function, sleep patterns or emotional well-being, consult your doctor about a blood test to check testosterone levels. If yours are below normal, you may be a candidate for hormone replacement therapy.
But keep in mind that supplemental testosterone may carry its own risks. For example, some studies have shown an increase in heart problems among men who take it. When men over 65 were given testosterone therapy, their risk of heart attack doubled, according to a 2014 study of more than 50,000 patients published in the journal PLoS One.