Though less common in men, certain so-called female diseases still pose a threat to men’s health. Could you be at risk for one of these women’s health concerns?
You might think of anorexia as a female disease, with a greater impact on women’s health than on men’s health. But don’t tell that to Victor Avon, 28, of Brick Township, N.J. An extremely obese teenager, Avon lost a large amount of weight to arrive at his healthy goal. The trouble was that he kept losing more and more weight after that — to the point where his life was in danger. His struggles with anorexia were not much different from what women experience.
“I spent several years in the grips of the disease. It was such a dark world,” he says. “I never thought I would change and, quite frankly, I didn’t want to change. But it almost killed me. I finally decided to hospitalize myself and spent three months in a program, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Since being discharged in June 2008, I have done everything I possibly could to prevent my disorder from taking me back to the darkness.”
Avon isn’t the only male to struggle with anorexia — nor is anorexia the only “women’s disease” that can impact men’s health. Here, a look at six conditions that are typically associated with women but that significantly affect both sexes.
Anorexia and Other Eating Disorders
The rate of women to men with eating disorders is about 9 to 1, but in other respects, anorexia and other such conditions are fairly similar in the way they affect men’s and women’s health, says Emmett Bishop, MD, founding partner and medical director of adult services at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver. The main difference? Risk factors.
“Men generally have different motives in terms of their weight loss,” Dr. Bishop explains. “Sometimes weight loss is prompted by athletic activities such as losing weight for sports performance. Men will also often develop anorexia nervosa more from an ‘orthorexic’ standpoint — by eliminating certain foods or food groups in an attempt to eat more healthfully. On the flip side, with bulimia nervosa, men’s motivation is the same as it is with women, a set of behaviors used in an attempt to manage emotions.”
Breast cancer, perhaps more than any other condition on this list, is considered primarily a women’s disease. (Think of all the pink!) Yet it can affect men’s health, too. Though it’s 100 times less common in men than in women, more than 2,000 new cases of male breast cancer are diagnosed each year.
Many of the risk factors for breast cancer in men are similar to those in women, such as age, family history, heavy alcohol use, and obesity. But men have some unique risks as well, including testicular disorders, liver problems, certain occupations that cause risky exposures, and Klinefelter syndrome (having an extra X chromosome). They also may fare worse in terms of survival: According to a recent study presented at the meeting of the American Society of Breast Surgeons, male breast cancer patients tend to have lower survival rates, larger and higher-grade tumors, and more lymph node metastasis.
Some 80 percent of people with the bone disease osteoporosis are women, but low bone mass can negatively affect men’s health, too. In fact, American men with or at risk for osteoporosis in 2002 totaled more than 14 million — a number that’s expected to grow to more than 20 million by 2020.
The impact of osteoporosis on men’s health and women’s health is similar: If left untreated, the condition can increase the risk of fractures, cause severe pain, and even lead to a loss of mobility. The big difference with this classic women’s disease in men is its timetable. Men don’t experience the rapid loss of bone mass in their fifties that women do, typically after menopause sets in. But between the ages of 65 and 70, risk factors for both sexes become more equal — men and women lose bone mass and experience a decrease in calcium absorption at the same rate.
Though menopause is unquestionably a rite of passage for women, men also go through some hormonal changes as they age — a phase sometimes referred to as “male menopause” — that play a parallel role in men’s health.
“Men have similar hormonal changes as women,” says Gregory David Albert, MD, a cosmetic surgeon in Miami. “As men get older, their testosterone level decreases compared to other hormones, namely estrogen. This will increase a man’s risk for developing gynecomastia [breast enlargement] and osteoporosis.” Staying active and eating healthy foods may help delay the change, Dr. Albert adds.
HPV, or human papillomavirus, has serious implications for women’s health because of certain strains’ link to cervical cancer. However, studies have found that men get this so-called women’s disease just as much as women do. In fact, almost all sexually active people of both sexes will get it at some point. And while men can’t get cervical cancer, they’re vulnerable to several other HPV-linked cancers, even more so than women. Specifically, studies done at Ohio State University found a link between HPV and throat cancer in men. These findings have led to recent recommendations for boys as well as girls to get the HPV vaccine to protect men’s health.
Lupus is an autoimmune disorder — your body’s immune system attacks its own organs and tissues. Ninety percent of people affected are women, but the impact of lupus on men’s health is significant — the symptoms, prognosis, and treatment are largely the same. The unique challenges that men may face stem from the fact that it’s thought of as a woman’s disease — some doctors may not be looking for lupus as the cause of a man’s symptoms, so getting a diagnosis might not happen as quickly as it could. Also, it may be more difficult to find lupus support groups just for men.