The Best Father's Day Gift: Health

The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay
CBS/The Early Show
"Behind every man," the cliche goes, "there is a woman." And behind every cliche, there is usually some element of truth. Such is certainly the case when it comes to men, women, and health, reports Dr. Emily Senay of The Early Show.

While Senay describes her husband as "a regular New-Age guy" capable of everything from fixing breakfast to coaching soccer, she laments the "one thing he just wasn't doing well: taking care of his own health."

Despite Senay's urgings that he adopt a healthier lifestyle, her husband ignored years of high cholesterol and early signs of diabetes. "As a wife and physician," says Senay, "I constantly worried, but he never seemed to."

According to Dr. Eli Newberger, Harvard physician and author of "The Men They Will Become," many males ignore the early symptoms of health problems.

"Guys always think, 'This is going to go away,'" says Newberger. "So a lot of men have unnecessary heart attacks, unnecessary strokes. A lot of men don't get preventative care that these days. In 2004, we know will keep them alive."

In fact, men die an average of five to six years earlier than their female counterparts. Car accidents, suicide and alcoholism all affect men more than women, as do leading causes of death such as cancer, stroke and heart disease. Senay reports that, by age 36, women already outnumber men. By age 100, she adds, only one man remains for every four women, prompting Senay to ask, "Why don't men take better care of themselves?"

Newberger believes that men suffering from health problems are often in denial: "I think a lot of guys are afraid of what they don't know, and they don't wanna find out."

He cites depression as a prime example. Up until fairly recently, clinical depression was considered a shameful disorder that many men were too embarrassed to admit having.

Correspondent Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes experienced this first hand. Following the highly publicized "Westmoreland Case," in which retired army general William Westmoreland accused Wallace of libel for a 1982 60 Minutes documentary on the Vietnam War, Wallace spiraled into despair. Though the charges were eventually dropped, he continued to reel from the challenge to his credibility:

"I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat, I was ashamed of the fact that, conceivably, I had clinical depression," Wallace recalls, "because this was 20 years ago, and you didn't talk about it."

He adds that men generally have a harder time recognizing depression because "it's not [considered] manly."

Even Wallace's general practitioner discouraged him from seeking treatment, claiming it would hurt his reputation as a journalist.

Finally, it was Wallace's wife, Mary, who forced him to get help: "(He wasn't) admitting it, which is so typical of men who say, 'I'm all right, there's nothing wrong with me.'"

Depression, says Senay, is only one of many diseases for which there has been little advocacy for men. In fact, men's health issues get significantly less attention than women's. As a result, few people recognize male depression, know that 5 million men suffer from osteoporosis, or realize men can get breast cancer.

Prostate cancer, a disease of the male urinary tract, strikes nearly a quarter of a million men annually. Still, awareness of the disease remains low, particularly amongst African-Americans, for whom it is the most commonly diagnosed male cancer.

In an interview with Washington lawyer Wes Williams, Senay asked if the otherwise healthy man had ever had discussed prostate cancer with his friends before being diagnosed with the disease.

"Never," Williams replied. "Absolutely never."

Williams' wife, Karen, an advocate for breast cancer research, pushed him into both treatment and activism. Williams now serves as head of the National Prostate Cancer Coalition, a group dedicated to raising awareness of the disease. To aid in this cause, several male celebrities, including actors Robert De Niro and Mandy Patinkin, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Yankees manager Joe Torre, recently have stepped forward to talk about their own battles with prostate cancer.

"This is something that we all need to be conscious of," says Williams, "but people don't, men don't talk about it in an outward fashion."

And that's where women come in.

Studies show married men live longer than single men, and that's not surprising. When men marry, many get their own health manager in a wife, a role Senay explores in her book, "From Boys to Men."

Male vulnerability starts long before old age. "Baby boys," says Senay, "are more likely to die of everything from premature births to accidental drowning… As they grow up, boys begin to grow away from routine health care. Men visit doctors less often than women."

In fact, 25 percent of men in a recent survey said that, when in pain, they wait as long as possible before turning to medical treatment.

This is something Dr. David Bell of The Columbia Young Men's Clinic is trying to change.

Bell's clinic is a place where men who have nowhere else to turn go for information on reproductive health. Says Bell, "Many of them haven't seen a physician for at least three to four years."

And what finally brings these men into the health center? For most of them, Bell says, it's the women in their life.

Newberger also says it's true. "It's women," he asserts. "It's their mothers, it's their sisters, it's their daughters who care for them, worry about them."

Even Newberger himself waited until his wife, Carolyn, insisted that he have a lump on his back examined. His wife "pushed and pushed. I don't like to say 'nagged,' but I guess you could call it that."

When Newberger finally showed the lump to a colleague, he discovered that it was, indeed, a serious skin tumor. Carolyn, it turns out, had saved her husband's life.

Increasingly, men are seeking treatment for their ills. A recent Braves baseball game in Atlanta hosted a men's health screening, and Capitol Hill has a health check-up station for congressmen and staffers. According to Newberger, men who seek health care "really feel better. Their relationships improve. Their job performances improve."

Senay further stresses the importance of men's health, saying: "As fathers, husbands and brothers we women depend on, men need to know that taking care of their own health is not a knock against their masculinity. If they need our help to get there, that's OK, too.

"Giving someone the gift of health may be the best Father's Day gift of all."