Healthy Habits, Longer Lives: How One Condition Has a Major Impact on Men’s Life Expectancy

It’s Men’s Health Week in Canada, so here’s another for the men out there — and the people with men in their lives they care about.

It’s no secret the differences between the sexes is more than skin deep, and few medical conditions reveal this quite like obesity. In my last article, I talked about some of the unique health challenges men face from the condition. But there was an elephant in the room that I didn’t mention. And more so than low testosterone, more so than prostate issues, more so than erectile dysfunction, this ought to be the greatest motivation to change our lifestyles.

Obesity can be nearly three times as deadly for men than for women. In fact, the only thing more likely to contribute to a premature death is smoking. But most Canadian men aren’t smokers, while 67 percent of us are overweight or obese.

For men of normal weight, the risk of dying before age 70 is roughly 19 percent. For women, it’s 11 percent. A difference, sure, but not an extreme one. However, in obese men that risk jumps up to 30 percent, but only 15 percent for obese women. That’s an 11 percent increase as opposed to a 4 percent increase. Quite a gap.

Why such a big difference? While it’s not yet crystal clear, it’s likely a combination of many things. The increased risk of poor outcomes from prostate cancer I’ve mentioned previously is just one example. Combine that with dramatically increased risks from diabetes and heart failure (57 percent and 79 percent greater in men, respectively), and you begin to recognize how obesity adds fuel to not just one fire, but many. As health issues begin to arise, they’re often caught later for men — after all, we’re 24 percent less likely than women to have visited a doctor within the past year.

None of this is good news, I know. But Oxford professor Richard Peto helps us look at it from another, more positive, perspective: “If you could lose about 10 percent of your weight, a woman would knock 10 percent off the risk of dying before she was 70, and for a man it would knock about 20 percent off.” That’s a pretty good trade in my book. Ten percent is an admirable goal, but even five percent will begin to make an impact.

The first step is starting a tough conversation with your doctor. We need to be honest with one another about the challenges we face, whether with obesity or any of the other issues we experience. And as the conversation continues, we need to be supportive — not just of each other but of ourselves. We need to break the stigma that surrounds obesity by sharing our experiences and hearing how others are facing it. As we begin making changes to our diet and our lifestyles, we need to celebrate them, no matter how small they may be.

Just like the current pandemic, this is a shared, global challenge. But after the pandemic is over, obesity will remain deadly. Let’s face it together.