MENS HEALTH WEEK: Life expectancy, Binge drinking and perceptions of health

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The research is sound, the numbers undeniable and the truth is if we’re really honest about it, for some reason, we as men, generally tend to ignore the signs or are most unlikely to follow up on signals are body is giving us because it seems to be harder for us to face up to, or completely oblivious to the warning signs of serious chronic conditions men might be more susceptible to.


Are men genetically predisposed to live shorter lives?

According to popular theory, men live shorter lives than women because they take bigger risks, have more dangerous jobs, drink and smoke more, and are less like to seek advice from doctors.  But research by scientists at UNSW Sydney suggests the real reason may be less related to human behaviour and more to do with the type of sex chromosomes we share with most animal species.

UNSW Science’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences analysed all available academic literature on sex chromosomes and lifespan — and they tried to establish whether there was a pattern of one sex outliving the other that was repeated across the animal kingdom.

“We looked at lifespan data in not just primates, other mammals and birds, but also reptiles, fish, amphibians, arachnids, cockroaches, grasshoppers, beetles, butterflies and moths among others,” said first author on the paper and PhD student Zoe Xirocostas “And we found that across that broad range of species, the heterogametic sex [XY in human males] does tend to die earlier than the homogametic sex [YY in human females for example], and it’s 17.6% earlier on average. In species where males are heterogametic (XY), females live almost 21% longer than males. But in the species of birds, butterflies and moths, where females are heterogametic (ZW), males only outlive females by 7%.”


Men and women store fat differently, so how are many men still obese?

It’s a paradox that has flummoxed women for generations – their apparent ability to store fat more efficiently than men, despite eating proportionally fewer calories.   On average, women have 6-11% more body fat than men.  Studies show oestrogen reduces a woman’s ability to burn energy after eating, resulting in more fat being stored around the body.  The likely reason is to prime women for childbearing, the review suggests.

“Female puberty and early pregnancy – times of increased oestrogen – could be seen as states of efficient fat storage in preparation for fertility, foetal development and lactation,” the study’s author Associate Professor Anthony O’Sullivan, from UNSW’s St George Clinical School, said. “From an energy balance point of view there is no explanation why women should be fatter than men, particularly since men consume more calories proportionately, In fact, women burn off more fat than men during exercise, but they don’t lose body fat with exercise as much suggesting women are more efficient fat storers at other times. The question is why does this paradox exist?”

An obvious answer is that fat storage by women gives an evolutionary benefit, he said. 

Melbourne researchers hone in on important differences between the male and female immune system which may explain why men are more susceptible to obesity and metabolism-related associated diseases, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.  It has long been known that men are more likely than women to develop unhealthy obesity and related metabolic diseases, while women are more prone to certain autoimmune diseases such as arthritis.  

Regulatory T cells function in multiple biological contexts, including autoimmunity, cancer, acute and chronic infections, host–commensal interactions and inflammation at barrier sites, allergy, pregnancy, tissue repair, metabolic sterile inflammation, and allo-transplantation / Masters of Immunology

Researching male and female adipose tissue — commonly referred to as body fat — a team at the Doherty Institute and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute discovered striking differences in the numbers and function of an immune cell population called regulatory T cells, or Treg cells, between male and female mice. Treg cells play a central role in the body by dampening inflammation, autoimmunity and maintaining the health of many tissues, including the adipose tissue.

Importantly, the adipose tissue is not only a storage for energy, but also an endocrine organ that plays a crucial part in regulating metabolism, appetite and inflammation. It also produces a range of different hormones.

“Not only did we discover dramatic differences in Treg cells, we also discovered a stromal cell type that responds directly to the male sex hormone, testosterone, and is therefore specific to males,” said University of Melbourne Dr Ajithkumar Vasanthakumar, Doherty Institute postdoctoral researcher. “This stromal cell makes a signalling molecule, IL-33, which is what Treg cells depend on. So, you have a completely novel chain of events that is regulated in a sex-specific manner.”

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Could fathers-to-be who binge drink pass on congenital heart disease to their children?

Drinking alcohol three months before pregnancy or during the first trimester was associated with a 44% raised risk of congenital heart disease for fathers and 16% for mothers, compared to not drinking.  Binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks per sitting, was related to a 52% higher likelihood of these birth defects for men and 16% for women.

‘Binge drinking by would-be parents is a high risk and dangerous behaviour that not only may increase the chance of their baby being born with a heart defect, but also greatly damages their own health,’ said study author Dr Jiabi Qin, of Xiangya School of Public Health, Central South University, Changsha, China.

Dr Qin said the results suggest that when couples are trying for a baby, men should not consume alcohol for at least six months before fertilisation while women should stop alcohol one year before and avoid it while pregnant.

Congenital heart diseases are the most common birth defects, with approximately 1.35 million babies affected every year. These conditions can increase the likelihood of cardiovascular disease later life, even after surgical treatment, and are the main cause of perinatal death. Alcohol is a known teratogen and has been connected with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Around one in four children with FASD have congenital heart disease, indicating that alcohol might also be implicated in these disorders.

Previous studies investigating the link between alcohol and congenital heart disease have focused on prospective mothers, with inconclusive results. This is the first meta-analysis to examine the role of paternal alcohol drinking.

How differently do men and women perceive their personal health?

A Mayo Clinic study found confidence in maintaining good health habits can be influenced by gender.  Men reported higher levels of physical activity and greater confidence in their ability to remain physically active, according to the study, which surveyed 2,784 users at the Mayo Clinic Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center, an employee wellness centre.  Men and women had comparable levels of confidence that they would maintain a healthy diet.

“Our findings suggest that confidence in maintaining health habits can be influenced by gender and also depends on which specific habit is being assessed — physical activity, for example, versus diet,” says Richa Sood, M.D., a Mayo Clinic internist, and a co-author and designer of the study.   “We were surprised by the finding that men felt they were as healthy as women despite having more medical problems.  This difference may have cultural roots because gender has been shown to influence self-efficacy, particularly for physical activity.”


Male anxiety during their partner’s pregnancy

Among many of the mental health conditions we are familar with, Australian National University likens their rare study of anxiety in men around the arrival of a new baby and its prevalence is just as common as postnatal depression in women.

“Men can feel left out of the process, because pregnancy and childbirth are so integrally linked to the mother,” said Dr Leach, from The Australian National University (ANU) Centre for Ageing, Health and Wellbeing. “It can compound the problem. They don’t seek help, because they think ‘it’s not so much about me’.  Having a new baby is a time of great adjustment for many parents, and it is normal to be nervous, but anxiety can become a problem when it persists for extended periods and interferes with every day functioning,”.

Symptoms of anxiety can include worrying or feeling keyed up much of the time, feeling irritable, and fears for the baby’s safety. Physical symptoms can include a racing heart, feeling sweaty, poor sleep and poor appetite.  Risk factors include lack of social support, especially from a partner, financial difficulties and a history of mental health problems.

“Health care during the perinatal period should be about the whole family,” Dr Leach said.

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Photography: Mens Health Organisation Australia, Mens Health Canada, Mens Health Forum UK, Prostate Cancer Australia, Beyond Blue Australia, Western Sydney Universitry
Videography: The World Within



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