Mork Calling Orsen, Come In Orsen!
Why are men still dying on average at a younger age than women? Are men really from Mars and women from Venus?
When I began to write this article about men’s health, my mind drifted to the late Robin Williams and what a remarkable performer he was. It wasn’t just his effortless wit that I admired, but also the powerful presence he commanded in more dramatic roles such as in The Dead Poets Society or The Fisher King. But when I reflect on Robin Williams, may he rest in peace, it is my childhood memories of his brilliant TV series Mork and Mindy that resonate most clearly; and particularly that catchphrase salutation that Mork used when trying to communicate with his friends in outer space; ‘Mork calling Orsen, come in Orsen…’
This got me wondering, as I sat to write this article, how would Mork describe to his space friends the difference between the health of men and women here on earth?
So where would Mork start? The natural place would be with a biology book, where he would discover the most obvious differences. Men have a Y chromosome which determines their sexual characteristics, causes the surge in testosterone levels during puberty which in turn drives things like hair growth, and in later years the cessation of hair growth in many of us! Through his investigations he could discover that men are more prone to risk-taking behaviours such as binge drinking, aggressive driving, and violent behaviour.
The stark truth is that that the average man spends at least fifteen years of his life suffering from a chronic health condition and will die five years younger than his female counterpart.
But can these statistics simply be put down to the Y chromosomes and testosterone? I certainly don’t believe so; furthermore to get to the root of the issue we have to look beyond the physical differences between men and women and examine how they interact with the world. Men are fundamentally more reluctant to express themselves. They do, of course, experience emotion but often find it difficult to verbalise. This results in a tendency to repress issues and feelings and ‘soldier on’ regardless, which has a two pronged impact on the health and wellbeing of men.
Firstly, emotional repression and isolation can result in negative health implications such as negative stress, and a potential over dependence on alcohol or other drugs.
Secondly, this instinct to conceal emotional issues often extends to physical ailments, causing many men to be reluctant to consult medical professionals when experiencing negative health symptoms.
A certain amount of this phenomenon can be attributed to society’s influence. Our belief systems and behaviour patterns are passed on to us by our parents, our peers, our role models, and of course prevailing media representations. We have mirror neurons in our brains which cause us to emulate behaviours; these were extremely useful in the past as they would teach us instinctive behaviours that would help keep us safe from predators and other threats. These days however, they cause us to adopt the habits and mannerisms of the people we spend the most time with, and not just as teenagers as one might assume, but right throughout our lives.
Simply put; monkey see monkey do!
This universal emulation behaviour should act as a reminder to us that how we approach health and wellbeing in our lives not only affects us, but has ripple effects throughout the lives of those we know and love.
So the reality is that the stereotypical macho male image of strength and invulnerability does us no favours at all, in fact it works against us by hindering our inclination towards health seeking behaviour.
It all too often causes men to ignore symptoms entirely or delay seeking help when sick or in pain. I call this ‘head in the sand’ or ‘ostrich’ syndrome and it is a behaviour I have experienced first-hand in my many years as a GP.
Admittedly, the usual suspects of denial, fear, apathy or simply ‘being too busy ‘ prevent men from taking action in many cases. By contrast, women generally show far more proactivity when it comes to seeking health advice.
Most people, particularly men, tend to take their health for granted, until they lose it. At this point regaining it becomes the main focus of their lives. Health IQ is a term I use when referring to the knowledge and attitudes that support better choices to benefit long term health and wellbeing. I believe promoting health IQ in ourselves and those around us can vastly improve our prospects of enjoying long and healthy lives.
This includes knowing your personal and family medical history, and being aware of your body and being proactive about getting things checked out if there is a change in how you feel.
It means appreciating the value of regular check-ups, after all a stitch in time saves nine!
It is about understanding that everything is connected, that your psychological fitness, emotional vitality, and the quality of your relationships are all influenced by your physical health.
Your health IQ is not static, it is something that you can develop and grow.
In fact the tide is turning and I am meeting more and more men in my medical practice who have decided to become leaders in their own wellbeing.
However, too often, I see the repercussions of men being passive about their health. That is why I am asking you to not only think about men’s health and to talk about men’s health, but I also ask that you take action for yourself and those around you.
Be proactive and encourage someone close to you, be it a family member, friend, or colleague, to action and make that move to improve their wellbeing.
We all know someone who has been bemoaning something actionable in their lives; help them move from talking the talk to walking the walk.
When it comes to our greatest asset, our health, there is no time to be wasted. Never do tomorrow what you can do today!
I’m reminded of a wonderful scene with Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society –
‘Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.’