Should there be an Office on Men's Health?

An article in the Wall Street Journal questions whether it's inherently unhealthy to be born male.

Published April 24, 2007 8:17PM (EDT)

According to the Wall Street Journal, it's dangerous to be male. Today's Health section ran a story titled "The Man Problem" asserting, among other things, that being a man is inherently more treacherous than being a woman and that we should be putting more research money into male-specific health problems than we have been in the recent past.

Many of the article's stats are important to pay attention to. Men live, on average, about five fewer years than women. They go to the doctor less frequently. They have higher rates of depression, accidents and suicide. They have more health issues as babies and lower levels of HDL cholesterol (i.e., the "good" kind) than women do. They're more likely to engage in risky behaviors, as well as to store fat around their abdomens -- the unhealthiest spot to pack on pounds. They have a different, more detrimental, response to stress than women.

Those all sound like things researchers should address, but I don't agree with the author's assertion that men's current health problems are partially caused by the fact that, over the past couple of decades, increasing attention has been paid to women's health. She writes, "Part of the problem is that for most of the past 30 years, issues of women's health have been the focus of government research and private advocacy in an effort to atone for years of neglect of women by the health care system ... Now some experts question whether the intense focus on women has had the unintended result of allowing men's health issues to slide." She points out that some groups are calling for the creation of an Office on Men's Health, to counterbalance the Office on Women's Health at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Call me naive, but I don't really understand why, when it comes to health, we need to get into a gender war. The Office on Women's Health was created in 1991 because research had abundantly proved that there already was, in essence, an Office on Men's Health: Medical research was, by default, skewed toward men. Since its creation, the Office on Women's Health and efforts like the Women's Health Initiative have gone a long way in correcting that imbalance. But they were both created to address a disparity, not to indicate that men's health problems were any less important than women's. Their point was that we should pay attention to both. That's why I support efforts like Columbia University's Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine, which focuses on both men and women.

My other point of contention with the article -- which is an interesting read, by the way -- is that there seems to be no distinction drawn between actual biological differences between men and women (i.e., stress response, cholesterol levels, heart disease risk) and behavioral differences (i.e., engaging in risky behaviors, like driving fast). It makes sense to me to put an equal amount of money into male- and female-specific medical research. But the fact that men have more behavior-related health issues than women shouldn't be used as evidence that it is inherently more dangerous to be born male. Sure, there can be biological reasons for behavior, but in many cases, behavior has social causes -- and potentially nonmedical solutions.

Take, for example, the fact that men don't go to the doctor as often as women do (even when pregnancy-related visits are taken into account). That's important. But it doesn't require getting into a debate about gender-specific medical research. The author of the article points out that this might be because women have gynecologists, whereas "there is no specialty devoted to men." Um, OK. But instead of accusing women of getting better medical care because they have vaginas (an odd argument, to be sure), why not look for practical solutions? Like, for example, this one, also mentioned in the article: Using so-called Viagra visits to screen men for heart disease.

Let me explain: The logic is that the same artery damage that hurts the heart also damages the arteries that lead to the penis. So if you go to your doctor seeking an erectile dysfunction drug like Viagra, it makes sense for your doctor to use that office visit to see if you have health problems that extend past your penis. I think that's a fantastic, constructive idea: using men's tendency to care about their sex drives to prevent other health problems, no gender wars required.

Lest this post get too outrageously long, my point is this: Men and women have biological differences, and we should be paying attention to how these differences impact their health. But some health problems are related to behavior -- not to biological differences. Thus, suggesting that it is inherently more dangerous to be born male seems off target. And I worry that approaches like the one taken by this article encourage men and women to view one another as adversaries in the war for medical funding, instead of players -- albeit ones with differences -- on the same larger team.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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