Men’s health in the UK is unnecessarily and unacceptably poor. Around one man in five still dies before the ‘traditional’ retirement age of 65 with cancer, suicide and heart disease being the biggest killers of working-age men. COVID-19 has made a bad situation even worse: men make up two-thirds of those hospitalized by the virus and they are over 60% more likely to die. The pandemic has led to the first decline in male life expectancy since the 1980s.
A closer look at the data reveals major inequalities in outcomes between groups of men. Men living in Blackpool’s Bloomfield ward live an astonishing 22 years fewer than men in Warfield ward in the town of Bracknell Forest in SE England. Black Caribbean men were almost three times more likely as White men to die from COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic in England. Rough sleepers, who are overwhelmingly male, are a particularly vulnerable group.
But services have not reached out to men, especially working-age men, effectively enough. Men are 32% less likely than women to visit the doctor. Despite being 75% of suicides, men make up just 34% of those referred to IAPT (‘talking therapies’). Men comprise 76% of premature deaths from heart disease and a majority of those with Type 2 diabetes but only a minority of those attending NHS Health Checks.
The government has recognized the need for a gender-informed approach to health. That’s why it has started work on a Women’s Health Strategy for England. This is a very necessary and welcome step. But the government, by not committing to a complementary men’s health strategy, still has one hand tied behind its back.
The case for the Women’s Health Strategy rightly highlighted the need for action to tackle women’s much greater risk of death in the 30 days following a heart attack. But there are areas of cardiology where men’s care is also sub-optimal. 15% of men have untreated high blood pressure compared to 10% of women, for example. This reflects a lack of a focused effort to improve early detection in men, including through NHS Health Checks.
Over the past 20 years, there has been a major increase in successful male-targeted health initiatives, on issues including mental health, weight loss, and physical activity. Men’s Sheds have proved particularly successful at reducing older men’s isolation and improving their sense of wellbeing. These programmes and projects have mostly been run by the voluntary sector and have been relatively small in scale and often short-term. The statutory sector as a whole has yet to rise to the challenge and provide mainstream services in ways that men are much more likely to use.
In 2019, the Women and Equalities Committee looked at the mental health of men and boys. One of its recommendations was that the government ‘should give serious consideration to creating and implementing a National Men’s Health Strategy.’ Seven other countries, including our closest neighbour, Ireland, have already introduced national men’s health strategies. While they are not a panacea, it is clear that they have proved a catalyst for action and contributed to improved health outcomes. Perhaps tellingly, since Ireland introduced its strategy in 2008, men there have experienced a significantly bigger increase in life expectancy than men in the UK.
The Men’s Health Forum, together with the Men and Boys Coalition, the UK Men’s Sheds Association, the Fatherhood Institute, Mengage, the Black Men’s Consortium, Global Action on Men’s Health and others, are now calling for all the UK governments to commit to a Men’s Health Strategy. International Men’s Day, on 19 November, marks the official launch of the campaign.
These organisations believe that a complementary approach for men and women will help ensure that everyone gets the better, more tailored and effective services they deserve. The next steps should be to start a consultation process, produce a report on the state of men’s health with recommendations, and develop an action plan for the introduction of a Men’s Health Strategy.
The need is urgent and the opportunity is huge. The time for action is now.
All the data referred to in this blog is referenced in Levelling up men’s health: The case for a men’s health strategy.
To find out more about the campaign for a strategy, and how to support it, visit: menshealthforum.org.uk/strategy.