By Sari Harrar
How to get him to shape up - without nagging or driving yourself crazy
Last winter, Eric Lagergren caught a stubborn cold. "I was exhausted for a week and a half and just not getting any better," he says. He also was drinking water constantly and getting up eight or nine times a night to go to the bathroom. "Then I got clumsy," says Lagergren, 33, who's an editor at the University of Michigan English Language Institute. "One weekend, I broke two or three things around the house — dishes and a vase."
On his own, Lagergren would have waited until things got even worse before seeing a doctor. But his wife, Kathryn Taylor, stepped in. Taylor wasn't worried about her tableware; she was worried about her husband. An endocrinologist delivered the diagnosis: type 1 diabetes. Lagergren's doctors suspect that his respiratory virus caused his immune system to go into overdrive, attacking the insulin-producing cells in his pancreas. His body's ability to make insulin, the hormone that tells cells to absorb glucose (blood sugar), was shutting down. "I give Kathryn all the credit for my quick diagnosis," says Lagergren, who now uses an insulin pump to control his illness. "Catching diabetes early reduced my risk for long-term complications like heart disease. Thanks to my wife, I'm healthier now than I was before I had diabetes!"
Like Lagergren, many guys need a big — or little — nudge from a caring spouse at crucial turning points in their health. In a recent American Academy of Family Physicians survey of some 1,100 men, 92 percent admitted they wait at least a few days before getting care when they feel sick or have pain — and almost 30 percent will hold out "as long as possible." They skip routine care, too. More than half hadn't had a complete physical in the past year, even though 42 percent had a chronic health condition, including high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, or cancer. Many are also lax about recommended screenings, such as cholesterol tests, prostate checks, and colon exams. "One of the biggest obstacles to improving the health of men is men themselves," says AAFP board chair Rick Kellerman, M.D. "They'll wait to see a doctor until their symptoms are really severe. And if they're feeling fine, they won't go at all."
But there's hope: You have the power to motivate your guy to do the right thing for himself. "Nearly 80 percent of men in our survey reported that their spouse or significant other influences their decision to go to the doctor," Dr. Kellerman says.
Best of all, you can make a difference without badgering him or making yourself nuts. In fact, your actions may do your talking for you. When health economists Tracy A. Falba, Ph.D., from Duke University, and Jody L. Sindelar, Ph.D., from Yale, analyzed the lifestyle habits of some 6,000 couples, they found that a woman's own healthy changes often prompted her husband to follow suit. Men whose wives quit smoking were eight times more likely to kick the habit, too, compared to those whose spouses continued to light up. If women started having yearly flu shots, their husbands were six times more likely to get vaccinated themselves.
There are other motivators as well. Here's what top men's health experts and regular guys say works.
Health Hurdle #1: Checkups and Screening Tests
Smart nudge: Get yours done at the same time.
Men see their doctors for preventive care about half as often as women do, reports the national Men's Health Network. While they may not need as many checkups as we seem to (all those gyno visits!), they do need more than they're getting. This gap is one reason the average life expectancy for men is only 75.2 years, compared to 80.4 years for us. "Women are more accustomed to going to doctors regularly for gynecological exams and pregnancy visits. Also, seeing a doctor isn't viewed as a weakness," says Mark A. Moyad, M.D., M.P.H., a preventive-medicine expert at the University of Michigan Medical Center. "The challenge is helping guys get the regular care that prevents major health problems — or catches them early."
Your best strategy? Make it a joint project: Go for your routine checkups together. "Women and men have many identical health issues," Dr. Moyad notes. "Both sexes need to protect their hearts; lower their risks for diabetes, stroke, and cancer; and be alert for signs of osteoporosis and depression." Dr. Moyad and his wife go for their annual cholesterol and other screening tests together. "It even fosters a little healthy competition," he says. "We each try to have the best numbers."
Say it like this: I'll get my blood pressure and cholesterol checked with you. "Most men will agree to go," says Dr. Moyad. "Now it's a partnership."
Health Hurdle #2: Prompt Attention to Scary Symptoms
Smart nudge: Express concern; don't blame or shame.
If your husband isn't taking care of a health problem, you're probably feeling very frustrated, says psychologist William Pollack, Ph.D., director of the Harvard-affiliated Center for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital. "But accusing him of dragging his feet will only backfire. It can make a guy feel like a bad boy, and he may become even more resistant."
Nor should you schedule a doctor's appointment for him unless he asks you to. "In my experience, most guys won't go if something's forced on them," Pollack says. "Instead, gather information about the best doctor in your area for the condition, then ask your husband to make the appointment." Offer to go with him, Pollack suggests. "He'll feel supported."
That's what helped get Ira Morrow, 54, a retired forklift operator from Vermilion, OH, to the doctor when he began having breathing difficulties. He was then referred to a specialist, who diagnosed silicosis, a lung disorder triggered by one of Morrow's earliest jobs as a sandblaster. Ultimately, he had to decide whether to have a lung transplant. "My wife, Linda, listened, but she never nagged, never insisted," says Morrow, who had the transplant and reports, "It turned my life around."
What medical issues might prompt your gentle urging? Inattention to already diagnosed health problems like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes, as well as difficulty sleeping or pain that doesn't get better in a few days. But you also shouldn't overlook these less obvious signs of trouble.
- A growing belly. This can be a warning sign for metabolic syndrome, a condition that raises his risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and possibly even some cancers. About 25 percent of men have the syndrome.
- Discouragement or irritability. These may signal depression, but the disease can also masquerade as anger, fatigue, or sleep problems. An estimated six million American men have depression.
- Less interest in sex and/or erectile problems. He may have low testosterone, which can also manifest itself as fatigue, depression, or trouble concentrating. A low level of the male hormone is a problem for an estimated four to five million men.
Say it like this: I'm concerned about what I've been noticing, and I'll feel better if you see a doctor. Then follow up with facts about what you see, Pollack suggests. "Avoid criticism." If your spouse continues to ignore the problem or if it's serious, it's time for something stronger: I'm worried about you. I love you, I want to have you around a long time. It's important to me that you see the doctor. And if you think he's really in danger, says Pollack, try: If you keep going on like this, I'm afraid I'm going to lose you.
Health Hurdle #3: Exercise and Diet
Smart nudge: Adopt a healthy lifestyle with him — or without him.
Blame it on "hungry man" portions and an NFL season that never seems to end: Sixty-seven percent of men are overweight, reports the American Obesity Association.
How to get your husband to shape up? Tailor your tactics to his personality, Dr. Moyad suggests. One guy — like a patient of his who lost 50 pounds — might be inspired by a motivational speaker. Another could do well with a group program. Whatever he tries, keep supporting him, says Siegfried J. Kra, M.D., a cardiologist at the Yale School of Medicine and author of How to Keep Your Husband Alive. "By himself, he may do fine for a while. Then, unless he gets reinforcement, he may give up."
Tampa disc jockey "Marvelous" Marvin Boone, 52, credits his wife for helping him stay slim. Shortly after losing 120 pounds, Boone, who hosts a greatest-hits radio program, married Pamela in a Las Vegas ceremony that featured an Elvis impersonator escorting the bride down the aisle. Since then, Boone says his wife has "loved him tender" by revamping their menu. "Although Pamela was always very slender, she did eat a lot of fast food," says Boone. "Now we're into fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish. We're doing it together."
And if your guy can't give up double cheeseburgers or get into an exercise routine, adopt healthy habits for yourself, sans lectures. (Remember what the Duke and Yale researchers found: Simply changing your behavior can have a profound influence on what your spouse does.) "As you get results," says Pollack, "he may be inspired to join in."
Say it like this: . Hear that silence? Lectures won't work here. Nonverbal action will, say our experts. And if your husband does start to change, don't become a lifestyle cop. "Men worry that they'll slip up, and everyone will come down on them," says Pollack. "They need a sense of trust."
CHECKING UP: HEALTH TESTS MEN NEED
If your guy's been avoiding the doctor, talk with him about scheduling an exam so that he's up-to-date on these lifesaving checks:
Blood pressure. By 45, more than one in three men have high blood pressure. Hypertension may take five years off a man's life — good reason to have an annual check. A healthy reading is 120/80 or lower.
Body mass index and waist size. BMI measures whether a person's weight is healthy for his height. A BMI of 25 and over raises risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and arthritis. A waist circumference over 40 inches increases chances of metabolic syndrome.
Cholesterol. Look beyond total cholesterol (healthy is under 200) and bad LDL cholesterol (generally, 100 to 130 is OK). Low levels of good HDL cholesterol (under 40) and high levels of triglycerides (over 150) put men at higher risk of heart attacks and stroke. Guys should have all of these blood fats checked every three years in their 30s, every two years in their 40s, and annually starting at 50.
Blood sugar. One in 10 men have type 2 diabetes, but many don't know it — and are at risk for complications. A healthy guy needs fasting–blood sugar checks starting at 45, earlier (ask his doctor when) if he has a family history of diabetes, high blood pressure, low HDLs, or is overweight.
Colon cancer screenings. This is the third most common cancer and the third deadliest as well. Start screening (colonoscopy is considered the gold standard) at 50, sooner if there's a family history.
Prostate cancer tests. Every man should have an annual digital rectal exam starting at 50; make that 45 for African-American men and those who have a family history of the disease. Many physicians advise PSA screens, too, beginning at 50 (45 for African-American men).
Skin exams. More men than women die from malignant melanoma. A monthly self-check and an annual exam by a doctor can help find suspicious growths early. One danger spot for men: the upper back.
Originally published on December 12, 2007
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