Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on August 3, 2017
Women get sicker, but men die quicker.
It’s an adage that no one seems to question. That there is a gender gap in life expectancy seems to be accepted without wondering why. Why is it that, according to Statistics Canada data, men’s average life expectancy is 4.7 years shorter than women’s? In Manitoba, the difference is 5.1 years.
There’s discussion about whether the difference in life expectancy means that women live longer dealing with diminished health, but the idea that men have shorter lives has been accepted as a truism with little concern about why that is.
Researchers suggest that our genetics play only a small role in our life expectancy — the rest is the result of how we live our lives. Smoking, excessive weight and inactivity shorten our lifespans and our general health.
But according to research by Joan Evans, Blye Frank, John Olliffe and David Gregory found in the Journal of Men’s Health, gender “is one of the most important socio-cultural factors influencing health and health-related behaviour.”
Indeed, according to the Canadian Men’s Health Foundation, 65 per cent of men aged 30 to 64 are overweight or obese, close to half of them are inactive, 40 per cent binge-drink and one-quarter of them smoke.
The implications are that men are 40 per cent more likely to die from cancer, 70 per cent more likely to die from heart disease and, on average, live nine years of their lives in very poor health. Middle-aged men are also more likely to die from suicide than any other age group.
Part of this comes down to how men are raised. More often than women, they are taught to be stoic and independent, taught to be masculine, taught to be silent. Research shows they are less likely than women to visit the doctor when they are ill and less likely to be active participants in their health outcomes.
Men’s Sheds and other similar programs have been found to help men deal with some of the issues that prevent them from improving their health.
Men’s Sheds are member-run groups where men get together for activities such as woodworking, cooking, music and watching sports on television.
The concept was first piloted in Australia in 1995 and then grew from there. They are now located in New Zealand, Ireland, the U.K., Greece, Finland, the United States and Canada. There are now over 900 Men’s Sheds in Australia alone, and 1,150 in total, with thousands of participants. Their impact has become the fodder of much research on their effect on men’s health and social well-being.
This country’s first Men’s Shed opened in Winnipeg in 2011. Doug Mackie, along with Dave Friesen, had the vision for this project and Mackie has travelled the world organizing Men’s Sheds in other countries.
Mackie says if you want to get a man to talk, “sit beside him” to work together on a project. He found that many men in his neighbourhood had a lot of time on their hands — particularly after retirement — and they began to suffer from loneliness, isolation and depression. The loss of a career often resulted in a loss of identity.
Men’s Sheds give them their identity back and provide them with a social circle that will alleviate isolation and could lead to better health.
It also allows men the opportunity to give back. Right now, the Woodhaven Men’s Shed, located in the Woodhaven Community Club, is partnering with Camp Manitou to build picnic tables as part of the Canada 150 celebrations.
Researchers Andrea Walding and Dave Fildes in Australia found that Men’s Sheds and other similar community-driven programs helped improve men’s health and the general well-being of older men. They also helped men develop skills and social networks and provided them with a safe space.
More importantly, they found that this type of programming is successful when there are no formal rules on how they should work or be organized. They must grow organically.
Mackie agrees with that finding. He said that you need to keep Men’s Sheds independent in Canada to serve local needs, without having the rules coming from the top down.
He says the requirements and the demographics of each community differ, so applying a one-size-fits-all philosophy to a Men’s Shed wouldn’t work.
Mackie’s enthusiasm for the Men’s Shed is infectious. He’s seen first-hand what these programs can do. He says after working on getting a Men’s Shed started near Ottawa, he was told by a participant, “I don’t need help for my mental health anymore; I have the Men’s Shed.”
It’s amazing that it can all start by just giving a man something to do and other men to do it with.
Let’s stop accepting the idea that men lead shorter lives and actively support those who are working to create healthy spaces for men — particularly as they age. Men shouldn’t have to die quicker.
Shannon Sampert is the editor-in-chief and director of EvidenceNetwork.ca at the University of Winnipeg and one of thousands of Canadians who has epilepsy.