Why Men Living as Long as Women Can Do More Good Than Curing Cancer
“The male has paid a heavy price for his masculine ‘privilege’ and power,”
said Dr. Herb Goldberg in his book The Hazards of Being Male.
“He is out of touch with his emotions and his body. He is playing by the rules of the male game plan and with lemming-like purpose he is destroying himself—emotionally, psychologically and physically.”
When I read the book shortly after it was published in 1976, I felt he was calling me to take care of my own mental health and help other men do the same.
On November 21, 1969, I held my new-born son, Jemal, in my arms and made a promise that I would be a different kind of father than my father was able to be for me and to do everything I could to bring about a world where men were fully involved with their families throughout their lives and lived full and healthy lives. I wanted to confront the “hazards of being male,” both for myself and for my young son, as well as my daughter, Angela, who came into the world on March 22, 1972.
“My physician father illustrated many of the biological and societal hazards of being male,”
says Marianne J. Legato, M.D., in her book, Why Men Die: How to Lengthen Your Lifespan.
“My mother outlived him by a decade, mourning his absence every day. My father’s lifestyle was not conducive to a long and healthy life. He had what I came to consider the quintessentially male nature: He worked with amazing tenacity at his vocation and he never asked anyone for help or complained about the burdens placed on him. He took risks that were unnecessary, asked no one for advice or counsel, smoked three packs of Philip Morris cigarettes a day, ate huge amounts of past, oiled vegetables, and rich Italian pastries, and frequently finished his long day with a generous helping of Scotch on the rocks in one of the beautifully faceted crystal glasses he favored.”
Dr. Legato’s early history was a big part of her motivation to launch the Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University in 1997.
“Until now, we’ve acted as though men and women were essentially identical except for the differences in their reproductive function. In fact, information we’ve been gathering over the past ten years tells us that this is anything but true, and that everywhere we look, the two sexes are startlingly and unexpectedly different not only in their normal function but in the ways they experience illness.”
From the beginning she recognized that, contrary to what many believed, males were the more fragile sex.
“A male fetus is less likely to survive to term than a female,”
says Dr. Legato.
“When he is born, a baby boy’s lungs are especially vulnerable, so that boys are less likely to survive the challenges of the first weeks of postnatal life. The rate of violent death for baby boys is higher, too. At least 6 percent of males who die between the ages of one and four are murdered.”
And males continue to be at risk as we get older. “In their teen and adolescent years,” says Dr. Legato,
“20 percent of boys who die do so because of suicide, murder, or reckless behavior. In fact, boys are physiologically inclined to die violent deaths. The area of the brain responsible for judgment and considered decision-making are less developed in adolescent boys than girls.”
The biological hazards of being male are exacerbated by the social demands placed on men. In my book, 12 Rules for Good Men, I describe the “man box”—the cultural and social demands placed on males that keep us locked in and emotionally cut off.
“Societal attitudes play an enormous role in this dreadful toll on men’s lives,”
Dr. Legato concludes.
“We encourage boys to ‘hang tough’ and drive through pain, unhappiness, and discomfort of all kinds no matter what the personal price. We discourage them from asking for help or advice about how to alleviate the consequences of this societal pressure. The result is unrecognized, untreated depression in males of all ages.”
It was that kind of depression that caused my out-of-work, mid-life father, to take an overdose of sleeping pills because he felt ashamed that he couldn’t support his family. I was just five years old, and though he didn’t die, our lives were never the same. Like Dr. Legato, my early experiences with my father and the impact of his depression on our family, were instrumental in my professional work in gender medicine and men’s health.
My Moonshot Mission for Mankind and Humanity
I founded MenAlive in 1970, shortly after the birth of our son, and have counseled men and their families, written books, taught classes, and developed on-line programs to help men live long and well.
At this stage of my career, spanning more than fifty years, I want to use the time I still have to make the most positive impact in the world.
My colleagues Randolph Nesse, MD and Daniel Kruger, PhD examined premature deaths among men in 20 countries. They found that in every country, men died sooner and lived sicker than women and their shortened health and life-span harmed the men and their families.
They concluded with four powerful statements:
- “Being male is now the single largest demographic factor for early death.”
- “Over 375,000 lives would be saved in a single year in the U.S. alone if men’s risk of dying was as low as women’s.”
- “If male mortality rates could be reduced to those for females, this would eliminate over one-third of all male deaths below age 50 and help men of all ages.”
- “If you could make male mortality rates the same as female rates, you would do more good than curing cancer.”
At the time of their study, they hoped their findings would stimulate governments to create programs to address these issues, but thus far, this has not happened. Often changing intrenched beliefs takes time. In November, 2021, MenAlive took action and brought together a number of leaders in the field of men’s health to share what we had found most helpful in helping men and their families. That effort continues this year.
The purpose of my Moonshot Mission is to bring together organizations throughout the world who are doing significant work to help reduce male mortality, to offer our resources, and coordinate efforts for change. We invite your participation and involvement and invite you to join us here. You can learn more about the Moonshot and our initial efforts in this article. “The Man Kind Challenge: Why Healing Men Will Do More Good Than Curing Cancer.”
What Can We Learn From the Longest-Lived People in the World and the One Place Where Men Live as Long as Women
Many people have heard about “Blue Zones,” places in the world where people live unusually healthy lives and live much longer than the rest of us. We can learn a lot from those who have traveled to these hot spots for health and well-being.
The concept of blue zones grew out of the demographic work done by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain outlined in the Journal of Experimental Gerontology, identifying Sardinia as the region of the world with the highest concentration of male centenarians. Pes and Poulain drew concentric blue circles on the map highlighting these villages of extreme longevity and began to refer to this area inside the circle as the blue zone. Many were inspired by what we were learning about these healthy and long-lived people, including Dan Buettner.
Dan Buettner is an unusual man. He is an explorer, educator, author, producer, storyteller and public speaker. He is also an adventurer who has led expeditions to interesting places throughout the world. In 1997 he approached National Geographic with the idea to research longevity hotspots and was given support to move forward. He then connected with Robert Kane, director of the Center on Aging at the University of Minnesota, who introduced him to top demographers and scientists at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) in Washington, DC. He was awarded a grant from the National Institute of Aging. Previous research identified the longevity hotspots of Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, and Loma Linda, California.
In doing research for her book, The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter, developmental psychologist Susan Pinker visited Villagrande, the region in Sardinia where people lived long and healthy lives. She met with Dr. Gianni Pes, who had done the original studies on longevity.
“Almost everywhere in the world,” says Pinker,
“men die an average of five to seven years before women do, leaving nations of widows to populate their gown squares, supermarkets, and seniors’ homes. The residents of the rugged hilltop villages of central Sardinia are the world’s only exceptions to this rule. Almost everywhere else, including on the Italian mainland, there are six female centenarians for every male.”
Pinker goes on to say,
“Elsewhere, most men don’t make it to eighty, but once Sardinian men in this region have lived through their dangerous, risk-taking adolescent and young adult years, they tend to live as long as their wives and sisters—well into their nineties and even beyond. Currently, ten times as many men in Villagrande live past the age of one hundred as men who live elsewhere.”
With a Blue Zones team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers, and epidemiologists, Buettner found the evidence-based common denominators of all the Blue Zones regions. He calls them the Power 9 and can help us all live longer and healthier lives. They are summarized below:
1. Move Naturally. Moving naturally throughout the day — walking, gardening, doing housework — is a core part of the Blue Zones lifestyle.
2. Purpose. The Okinawans call it ikigai and the Nicoyans call it plan de vida. Knowing why you wake up in the morning makes you healthier, happier, and adds up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
3. Down Shift. Stress is part of life, but Blue Zones centenarians have stress-relieving rituals built into their daily routines. Adventists pray, Ikarians nap, and Sardinians do happy hour.
4. 80% Rule. People in Blue Zones areas stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full and eat their smallest meal in the early evening.
5. Plant Slant. Beans are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Vegetables, fruit, and whole grains round out the rest of the diet and meat is eaten in small amounts.
6. Wine @ 5. Moderate but regular consumption of wine (with friends and/or food) is part of the Blue Zones lifestyle.
7. Belong. Being part of a faith-based community adds four to 14 years to life expectancy.
8. Loved Ones First. Having close and strong family connections (with spouses, parents, grandparents, and grandchildren) is common with Blue Zones centenarians.
9. Right Tribe. The world’s longest-lived people have close friends and strong social networks.
Blue zones aren’t just “over there.” They can be “right here” where you live. The Blue Zone Project was created to bring these practices to communities throughout the world.
Blue zones have come to my local community in Mendocino County. I’ll be reporting on what we’re doing here. If you want to learn more about our Moonshot Mission for Mankind and how we can help men live fully healthy lives for themselves and their families, you can learn more here.