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Say 'Aaah' | THE HEALTHY MAN

Women Better at Guarding Well-Being

August 14, 2000|Timothy Gower

Men are fatter than women. We smoke and drink more too. And despite our fondness for needling wives and girlfriends about being lousy drivers, we're much more reckless when we get behind the wheel--more likely to drive drunk and less likely to strap on a seat belt.

These disturbing facts come to us courtesy of a report on sex differences in personal health habits that was issued recently by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data, gathered by the CDC through a phone survey, paint a stark picture: By most measures, women do a much better job of safeguarding their health than men do.

In addition to the humbling realities already mentioned, CDC researchers found that women get their cholesterol levels checked more frequently too. Men topped women in only a few categories studied by the CDC. We get more exercise, for instance, and appear to be somewhat less squeamish about colon cancer screening.

This isn't exactly shocking news. Past surveys have come up with similar findings. And most people seem to know intuitively that women are, in general, more savvy about self-care. But why? Is there something about the male psyche that makes us more likely to cut corners with our well-being?

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Part of the problem, explains University of Missouri psychologist David Geary, is our need to succeed. "Men are much more competitive than women socially," says Geary, author of "Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences" (American Psychological Assn., 1998). And let there be no mistake about what we're competing for: mates. But unlike those wildebeests you see bashing heads on "Nova," we try to trump one another with status, in the form of more prestigious jobs and higher salaries. Often, however, getting that promotion or bonus might involve working long hours, which can mean coping with unhealthy levels of stress, eating junky takeout food and missing sleep.

Success can also require taking risks. Unfortunately, says Geary, the male tendency toward derring-do spills over into other aspects of our lives where it's not likely to do us much good, such as driving too fast and acting like seat belts are for wimps. He says males may be more likely to ignore the dangers of smoking and drinking too much for similar reasons. "Men probably don't assess risk as thoroughly as women," says Geary. "Women think more about consequences."

Which, from an evolutionary standpoint, makes sense. For any species to survive, somebody has to be around to feed and care for the little ones until they're mature. In most human societies, women play the more critical role in child rearing. So, as Geary notes, "from a biological perspective, they feel more invested in self-maintenance." In other words, if women weren't hard-wired to be health-conscious, humans would have been wiped out long ago.

Of course, that's not the whole story. Just under 45% of the women surveyed were overweight, versus 62% of men. But women are probably more weight-conscious because of social pressure to remain slim, says Geary.

And there's an irony to the greater female preoccupation with personal health: Statistics show that women tend to develop more chronic illnesses, such as arthritis and migraine headaches, than men. However, they also go to the doctor more, says sociologist Jill Grigsby, of Pomona College in Claremont. "That may be because women are more likely to define themselves as 'sick,' " says Grigsby, a demographer who studies health and mortality. "But that also means women are going to be diagnosed and receive treatment earlier. That might be one reason they live longer."

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And, indeed, that's the payoff: Although American women are more likely to develop crippling illnesses, they live nearly six years longer than men. You can't blame our nature entirely, since most experts agree that hormones influence longevity, too. Estrogen appears to protect women from heart disease until they reach menopause. Meanwhile, the male hormone, testosterone, encourages the growth of prostate cancer cells.

Still, men might be able to close the longevity gap by acting a little less, well, manly. Pay attention to your body and what you put in it. When you feel sick, don't "tough it out"--see a doctor. And for heaven's sake, wise up behind the wheel. After all, notes Geary, "not wearing a seat belt is just stupid."

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Timothy Gower is the author of "Staying at the Top of Your Game" (Avon Books, 1999). He can be reached at tgower@capecod.net. The Healthy Man runs the second Monday of each month.

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