By Aideen Sheehan, Knowledge Translation Officer
If you knew there was a group who died years earlier, were more likely to suffer from heart disease and cancer, and had a much greater risk of dying from suicide, respiratory disease and COVID-19, you’d assume they would be beating down the doors of doctors’ surgeries in a bid to get help.
The reality is that although that group constitutes half the Irish population, men’s health in Ireland and Northern Ireland continues to lag behind women’s – and so does their use of healthcare services.
Even in normal times men are much less likely to seek help for what ails them – Central Statistics Office data from 2019 indicated 68% of men in Ireland had visited a GP in the last year compared with 82% of women – while TILDA research during the pandemic showed more than one in four older men in Ireland delayed medical treatment further.
Men’s Health Week which is taking place this week is encouraging men in both Ireland and Northern Ireland to “check in, check up, check it out” to try and recover some of the ground that has been lost during the pandemic, and reengage men in activities and services that can boost their physical and mental health.
Report cards on men’s health in Ireland and Northern Ireland paint a clear picture of the toll ill health and poor lifestyles can take on men throughout the island, translating ultimately into shorter lives and long periods spent coping with disabling conditions. They show:
- Men in Ireland die 3.6 years earlier than women on average (men 80.5, women 84.1) and in Northern Ireland the gap is 3.8 years (men 78.8 years, women 82.6 years). These gaps have narrowed in recent years, but remain wider in more disadvantaged communities.
- Healthy life expectancy – the average number of years lived in good health free of disability – is also lower for men than women. In both Ireland and Northern Ireland the gap is close to two years.
- In Ireland 78% of men drink alcohol, and binge drinking is the norm for over half of these, while one in five men smokes (19%) and two out of three are either overweight (42%) or obese (24%).
- In Northern Ireland 80% of men drink alcohol, one in four (26%) drinks above weekly recommended limits, 18% smoke, and almost seven in 10 are either overweight (43%) or obese (26%).
- In Ireland 46% of men don’t meet national physical activity guidelines, while in Northern Ireland 39% don’t. In both countries inactivity levels rise with age.
- Cancer is the number one cause of death among men in both Ireland (33.1%) and Northern Ireland (30.1%), and death rates from it in Ireland remain higher than the EU average.
- Heart and circulatory disease accounts for 29.2% of male deaths in Ireland and 24.6% in Northern Ireland. This has improved in the last decade but still affects men more – for example 71% of all ischaemic heart disease (narrowed arteries) in Ireland occurs in men.
- Suicide rates have fallen in recent years but remain much higher among men than women. In Ireland 327 men died by suicide in 2018, while in Northern Ireland 157 men died by suicide in 2019.
As well as these ongoing health issues, COVID-19 has also posed a particular threat to men, as they are more likely to be hospitalised and die from it than women – recent research published in The Lancet analysing the records of almost 20,000 people in Ireland who contracted COVID-19, indicated the odds of dying from it were over 50% higher for men, even after adjusting for age and underlying conditions.
There are many bright spots in the health story of men in Ireland and Northern Ireland in recent years – deaths from heart disease and suicide have fallen, smoking is down, cancer survival rates have improved and life expectancy has risen.
Many initiatives have proven successful in getting men to engage more with their peers and take active steps to improve their health – programmes such as Farmers with Hearts and Men’s Sheds have shown the enormous value in targeted actions through networks of peers.
But of course as well as posing enormous challenges to everyone’s physical and mental health, the pandemic has been hugely disruptive to many of the activities and services which can support better health, wellbeing and social engagement. This means that as society slowly recovers, it’s vital men be supported back into reestablishing the connections that can underpin happier and healthier lives.
Men’s Health Week runs from 14th June to 20th June 2021 and more information on it can be found here. https://www.mhfi.org/mhw/mhw-2021.html. It is run by a coalition of health organisations on both sides of the border led by the Mens Health Forum in Ireland.
Central Statistics Office. Irish Health Survey 2019. https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-ihsmr/irishhealthsurvey2019-mainresults/engagementwiththehealthsystem/
Bennett et al.(2021). Underlying conditions and risk of hospitalisation, ICU admission and mortality among those with COVID-19 in Ireland: A national surveillance study. The Lancet. Regional Health Europe. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanepe/article/PIIS2666-7762(21)00074-0/fulltext