Nobody likes to visit the doctor, but men are far less likely to do so than women. And that hang-up could be one of the main reason's why men's life expectancy is coming up short by six years, when compared with women's life expectancy [source: ABC News].
It might be that men think they ought to be able to ride out illnesses. Or maybe some men think that admitting concern about their health is a sign of weakness. Sometimes, if a problem is extremely personal, guys would rather not discuss it at all. Even when men do go to the doctor, they may not see the value in getting a regular physical. The mentality is, "I feel fine, so everything must be OK." They may also be less likely to ask important questions about their health.
This lack of openness at the doctor's office can have some serious consequences. On average, men are at a higher risk for diseases like cancer -- a man's risk of developing cancer in his lifetime is one in two, while a woman's is one in three [source: ABC News]. They're also more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like smoking and drinking, and they have higher stress levels. These factors can lead to conditions and diseases that, if left undetected and untreated, can be debilitating or even fatal.
Doctors aren't just there to treat you when you're sick; they're also there to help prevent you from getting sick in the first place. In this article, we'll talk about why it's important for men to see their physicians on a regular basis -- and what kinds of questions they should be asking them.
Which tests and screenings do I need, and why?
So, you've decided to see your doctor and get a physical. You make an appointment, submit to various pokes and prods, and have a talk with your doctor. Let's say you get a clean bill of health. But did you ask any questions? Do you know why you got the tests you did? When you should get those tests again? Why are you now taking that pill every day?
Believe it or not, many men who do get a physical leave the office without knowing what the term means. Physicals can differ depending on the doctor and on your age. Most consist of three different parts: an actual physical exam, questions to get your medical history and screening tests. You'll be weighed and have your temperature and blood pressure taken. The doctor will also listen to your heart and lung function and check your reflexes. He or she will then ask you about your general health and lifestyle. Finally, the doctor will order screening tests. Basic ones include cholesterol, blood sugar and iron levels. Some doctors also take an EKG to monitor heart function. The one thing that sets a man's physical apart from a woman's is the prostate check -- depending on your age and other symptoms, your physician may want to perform a digital rectal exam. This alone is probably why some men avoid physicals; it's unpleasant, but it's necessary to ensure your health. An enlarged prostate can restrict urine flow or cut it off entirely; it could also signal a tumor (more on this later).
If your doctor prescribes medication based on the results of your physical (such as high blood pressure), be sure to ask about side effects, possible interactions and ways that you can change your lifestyle to help deal with the condition. Also ask how often you should get a physical; if you're over 40, he or she may suggest a yearly one.
How do my family history and lifestyle put me at risk?
Even if you think that you don't have anything in common with your family members, you'll always share their genes. Sometimes, that means you have an increased risk of developing certain conditions and diseases. For example, if your parents have heart disease, you're more likely to develop it yourself. There can also be both genetic components and behaviors learned from your family. For example, if a parent was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes before the age of 50, you have a one in seven chance of getting it [source: American Diabetes Association]. Or you may have been taught poor eating and exercise habits when growing up, which can also lead to type 2 diabetes. Some types of cancer can also have a hereditary component, such as colon cancer.
If your doctor doesn't ask you about your family history and you're concerned that you may get a disease because a relative had it, bring it up yourself. The doctor may put your mind at ease. Remember that this doesn't mean you'll automatically get the disease or condition; you just have a higher likelihood of it. Ask your doc how you can lessen your risk through your behavior. It's important to be honest about your habits; if you drink or smoke, say so. Be honest about your exercise and stress levels. Men already have a higher risk of developing cancer and heart disease than women, but they're also more likely to make lifestyle choices that can increase that risk. Your doctor isn't there to judge but to help you be the healthiest that you can be. He or she can't do that without all of the information, so ask (and answer) away.
Am I at a healthy weight?
There's a stereotype of the big, strong man that makes some men think it's perfectly fine to be overweight. However, excess weight increases your risk of a multitude of different conditions -- some of which we've already mentioned -- like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Your weight isn't the only number to be aware of, however. You should also find out your BMI, or body mass index. This number also takes your height into account to come up with a range; somewhere between 18.5 and 24.9 is generally considered normal. There's some controversy surrounding the idea of the BMI as the most important factor when assessing weight-related risks, but it's a good place to start.
If you have a "beer belly" (also known as abdominal or central obesity and not actually caused by beer drinking), you're more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke than if your surplus weight were more uniformly distributed. Doctors may determine this by calculating your waist-to-hip ratio (dividing the circumference of your waist by that of your hips). If it's greater than 0.9, it's time to lose weight.
But don't be discouraged: Losing just 5 percent of your total body weight can significantly lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, which, in turn, decreases your risk of disease [source: CDC].
What could be causing blood in my urine?
If it's already difficult to make yourself go to the doctor for routine procedures, you may be even more hesitant to make an appointment to discuss a problem in a private part of your body. Try to remember that doctors are professionals. If embarrassment is stopping you from discussing something like blood (or something else that's unusual) in your urine or semen, pain in your groin or a lump in your testicles, it's time to let it go.
Blood in your urine can be detected during a physical, or you may notice it yourself. If you're also having difficulty or pain while urinating, it could be a bladder, urinary tract or kidney infection. These conditions are treatable with antibiotics. However, it could also be a symptom of something more serious, including kidney stones, an enlarged prostate or even cancer. So it's definitely worth getting checked out, even if it just happens once. The same is true of blood in the semen; sometimes it goes away on its own without any known cause, but it can also be a symptom of an infection or a more serious condition.
Am I sexually healthy?
Many men assume that if they use a condom correctly every time they have sex, they're probably free of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). However, some STIs are asymptomatic -- you can be infected with them without having any symptoms. Symptoms make take awhile to appear after infection, or you may think that it's something else. For this reason, you need to have a frank discussion with your doctor about your sexual history and any symptoms you may have -- including pain or burning while urinating, a discharge or any type of bump. Even curable STIs can lead to long-term problems if left untreated.
Another potentially embarrassing question to ask your doctor has to do with your sexual function -- or rather, dysfunction. No man wants to admit that he's having difficulty getting or keeping an erection, but erectile dysfunction affects more than 18 million men in the U.S. alone [source: WebMD]. This condition can be detrimental to your sex life and your self-esteem, but did you know that it can also be a symptom of a more serious condition such as heart disease or diabetes? Some medications can also cause impotence. There is a wide range of treatment options for ED, so there's no reason to suffer in silence.
Finally, if you're considering starting a family, keep in mind that male infertility is the cause of a couple's fertility issues about half the time [source: Mayo Clinic]. If you and your partner have been unable to conceive after a year, discuss it with your doctor.
Should I be worried about my issues with constipation or diarrhea?
It happens to all of us at some point -- the occasional stomach upset that's actually constipation or diarrhea. Women are more likely to experience bowel issues than men, but they're also more likely to consult their doctor about them. Chronic bouts of either constipation or diarrhea, or sudden, intense bouts of either, can indicate something more serious than just an upset gut. For example, alternating chronic constipation and diarrhea may be caused by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Chronic constipation can be a symptom of colon cancer or thyroid problems. Acute diarrhea can signal an infection or food intolerance, while chronic diarrhea could be a symptom of celiac disease.
Even if there's nothing truly serious going on, don't suffer with the pain and embarrassment of these conditions. See your doctor if over-the-counter remedies aren't doing the trick and the problem doesn't resolve itself. Also, find out if your lifestyle may be to blame. Simply eating a more balanced diet, drinking lots of water and exercising can help. Your physician can suggest a diet plan or refer you to a nutritionist.
Am I depressed?
To some men, admitting depression is the equivalent of admitting failure or weakness. Like other mental illnesses, however, depression is a disease and a treatable condition. Depression affects more than 6 million American men from all walks of life every year [source: National Institute of Mental Health]. Men are also at a higher risk of committing suicide than women because they are less likely to report their depression. Depression in men can present differently than it does in women, although there's a big list of potential symptoms for both men and women. We typically associate the condition with feelings of worthlessness and sadness, but depression can also mean feeling tired, achy and restless or experiencing extreme changes in appetite.
If you have a family history of mental illness or have been through a severely stressful or traumatic situation, you may be at a higher risk for depression. Fortunately, there are many different treatments available. Your doctor may want to prescribe an antidepressant or refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist for further evaluation. Depression can affect every facet of your life, including your relationships with others, so consider getting help before you feel like things are spiraling beyond your control.
Am I in male menopause?
Male menopause is still a controversial diagnosis, but more medical professionals are recognizing that men may experience a variety of symptoms as they age that are similar to female menopause. Some call it andropause, as it seems to be related to a decline in the male hormone androgen (or testosterone). Unlike menopause in women, male menopause does not have a defined endpoint because men continue to produce testosterone as they age. However, it can be reduced by as much as 50 percent by age 70 [source: Mayo Clinic].
This decline in testosterone production can cause some unpleasant symptoms. These include hot flashes, insomnia, loss of energy, lack of sex drive and feelings of depression. If you're in your 50s, you may want to consider asking your doctor if these symptoms could be due to low testosterone. Of course, these can also be symptoms of other problems. Your physician will probably want to rule out other potential causes first. A blood test will reveal whether your testosterone level is low. For treatment, your doctor may suggest ways to deal with some of the symptoms, including testosterone replacement therapy. This treatment can provide relief of symptoms for some men, but be aware that it may also increase your risk of developing prostate cancer.
Which types of cancer should concern me the most?
The "c" word is always a concern -- as we mentioned before, men have a greater lifetime risk of cancer. When you exclude gender-specific cancers, men are about 60 percent more likely to get cancer and 70 percent more likely to die of cancer than women [source: Men's Health].
Lung cancer is more common in men than women for one simple reason -- more men smoke than women. If you're a smoker, don't wait until you start having symptoms such as wheezing or shortness of breath; ask your doctor to suggest ways to help you quit. While you can also get lung cancer from exposure to asbestos or radon, smoking accounts for the vast majority of cases.
Colorectal cancer is also more prevalent in men. The risk increases with age -- more than 90 percent of cases occur in men over the age of 50 [source: National Cancer Institute]. While family history is a part of your risk, so is obesity and a diet high in red and processed meats. After the age of 50, all men should be screened for colorectal cancer (if you have a family history of the disease or a history of rectal polyps, you may want to be screened earlier). There are three different screening options: a fecal occult blood test, a double-contrast barium enema or a colonoscopy. Decide which option is best for you with your doctor's advice.
What are my chances of developing prostate or testicular cancer?
In addition to their greater susceptibility to cancer in general, men also have to worry about types of cancer that women don't. These include prostate, testicular and penile cancer. The first two are much more common, while penile cancer is so rare that there were fewer than 1,500 cases diagnosed in the United States in 2010 [source: National Cancer Institute].
Prostate cancer becomes more of a concern as you get older; the average age at diagnosis jumps from less than 1 percent to 8.9 percent when you reach age 45 [source: National Cancer Institute]. Symptoms include difficulty urinating or painful urination as well as painful ejaculation. Aside from a digital rectal exam, prostate cancer can also be detected through a blood test for PSA (prostate-specific antigen). This screening test is controversial because its effectiveness has recently come into question; ask your doctor if you should be screened.
According to the Testicular Cancer Resource Center, men between the ages of 15 and 35 are the most vulnerable to testicular cancer. Early detection means a self-exam. If you find what you think is a lump in your testicles, don't hesitate to discuss it with your doctor. Some men mistake the epididymis (the tube at the back of the testes that carries sperm) for an abnormal lump. Ask your doctor to examine you and how often you should perform a self-exam.
HowStuffWorks looks at a study linking time spent with childhood friends with improved outcomes in men's health.
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