Men are faced with the possibility of several life-threatening diseases, but luckily, some of the right preventive measures can help to reduce their chances. Learn about some of the dangers and preventive steps that older men can take.
The list of the greatest health threats to men is surprisingly short. Just four diseases make the list developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: cancer, heart disease, stroke and chronic lower respiratory disease.
The good news is that, with sensible judgment, men not only can avoid or postpone these killers, but also can survive them. The first, and by far the most important, thing men can do to protect themselves and prevent killer diseases is to stop avoiding regular exams. The Mayo Clinic urges men not to wait until they recognize that something is seriously wrong. By following doctors’ instructions for treatment of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol as well as scheduling regular check-ups and screenings, men can take a proactive stand to safeguard their life and future.
That commitment can start with consistent cancer screenings. While men are prone to all forms of cancer including, rarely, breast cancer, they do face their own specific type: prostate cancer. Dr. Ismael Shaukat, a medical oncologist at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center, says men from about age 50 and older are vulnerable, but the older they grow, the more vulnerable they become. Shaukat points out that studies from autopsies indicate that approximately 60 to 70 percent of men 80 and older have occult prostate cancer.
“It is said that more men die with prostate cancer than because of it,” Shaukat adds. “If we were to autopsy all men aged 90 and older, about 80 percent of them would be found to have prostate cancer.”
While fatty diet and other external factors may determine the occurrence of prostate cancer, Shaukat confirms that genetics plays a major role in individuals who have family members affected at an early age. He adds that African-American men have the highest risk of developing it.
“A man with one family member diagnosed with prostate cancer has a two-fold chance of developing it,” Shaukat explains. “If he has two or more relatives with the disease, his odds increase four-fold.”
Shaukat adds that prostate cancer feeds off testosterone, so the target treatment aims at reducing the levels of testosterone as well as blocking the receptors, otherwise known as the androgen receptors.
“Like so many other cancers, prostate cancer often produces few or no symptoms until the disease is well advanced,” Shaukat says. “It can affect the outer lobes of the prostate or go deep to the inner part.”
While common sense indicates that men over the age of 50 should be tested for prostate cancer, Shaukat adds that recent controversy has clouded that issue.
“Not long ago, men were advised to undergo PSA blood testing in much the same manner that women have regular PAP tests and mammograms,” Shaukat continues. “The problem arose with too many false positive results. This resulted in a lot of unnecessary testing and anxiety.”
Still, diagnoses rely on PSA tests, a digital rectal exam and biopsies when prostate cancer is suspected.
“Depending on whether the patient has low, intermediate or high-risk disease, we can either surgically remove the prostate or we can do radiation therapy or anti-testosterone treatments, or a combination of the two (radiation and anti-hormone) if it is at an interim stage,” Shaukat adds. “If it is very early, we also can monitor the progress without specific treatments, which is deemed as active surveillance.”
Like other cancers, prostate cancer can metastasize into bones, lungs and liver. Shaukat says that frequently, prostate cancer isn’t diagnosed until it shows up in the bones, primarily because of drainage of the venous system.
Preventing Heart Disease
Heart disease is a health threat for anyone, and at any age. It remains the No. 1 cause of death not only in America, but globally.
Dr. Andrew Kotis, a board-certified interventional cardiologist with SwedishAmerican Medical Group/Midwest Heart Specialists, says even men as young as 20 to 30 can have heart attacks. However, over a lifetime and contingent on multiple health factors, the odds rise to 49 percent after a man passes 40. In men 70 and older, there is still a 30 percent risk of heart attack.
“Men who have heart attacks or develop heart disease very early do so because of genetics, an undiagnosed flaw in the heart or through substance abuse,” says Kotis. “Aside from unhealthy habits, family history increases a man’s risk of heart attack or disease in proportion to the number and close relationships, along with other factors such as age.”
Kotis calls these risks non-modifying because there is no way to change or reduce the odds, and he stresses that they contribute significantly to a man’s predilection toward a first heart attack.
“Modifying factors include abdominal girth,” Kotis continues. “Men who have a waist size of 40 inches or greater need to reduce their weight in order to reduce their chances of a first heart attack. Stress, anxiety, high blood pressure and anger all contribute to heart disease and attacks. So do strokes and TIAs—those little strokes that often go unnoticed until it’s too late.”
Still, men between the ages of 40 and 70 are most at risk for a first heart attack; about one million Americans will suffer a first heart attack this year. Worldwide, Kotis adds, around 17 million will die from heart attacks in 2014.
Diagnosing heart disease is the No. 1 reason why men should stop avoiding regular physical exams, says Kotis. He sees many cases where a man arrives at SwedishAmerican’s emergency room with all of the symptoms of a heart attack, but with no prior warning signs.
“If the patient comes in an ambulance, he has an excellent chance of surviving,” Kotis says. “We have a marvelous relationship with the Rockford, Byron, Roscoe and Belvidere paramedic crews. They can send EKGs while en route, saving us precious minutes and heart muscle. Our team is on call 24/7 no matter where we are, ready to administer an EKG to any patient who comes in by car within five minutes of arrival. Our goal is to have the artery open within 60 minutes.”
Survival rates under these conditions are excellent, Kotis says. Prognosis is good as well, thanks to highly advanced technology and equipment, including bare metal and drug-eluting stents.
“We are seeing an overall reduction in mortality,” Kotis says. “When we can save heart muscle and restore the heart’s normal function, the odds of survival increase incrementally.”
For many, strokes seem to come from nowhere, like lightning striking out of a clear sky. That bolt-of-lightning stroke hits slightly more men than women. According to the American Stroke Association, stroke is the No. 4 cause of death in the United States. Out of 100,000 white men, stroke kills slightly more than 41, but for African-American men, more than 67 of every 100,000 will die from a stroke.
Dr. Robert Lisek, a board-certified internal medicine doctor with Beloit Health System, says there are precursors that may indicate the potential for a stroke. Numbness and/or tingling in arms and legs, unexplained weakness, sudden partial paralysis, difficulty in speaking or using common words, and loss of balance are all clues to the mystery of how and when strokes strike.
“The rapid onset of a severe headache is another warning sign,” Lisek adds. “We treat two types of strokes. One is ischemic, indicating the brain is not getting enough blood. The other is hemorrhagic rupture, occurring in the brain in a way similar to an aneurism.”
Because of the blood-flow factor, cardiac arrest and stroke are systemically related, Lisek says. They are both part of the vascular network within the human body, and will influence each other.
“It’s a delicate balance between heart and brain,” Lisek says. “One example of this symbiotic relationship is atrial fibrillation in the heart, not caused by a valve malfunction. Left untreated, A-fib increases the risk of stroke. Because the upper chamber of the heart is not pumping the way it should, clots can form. As these clots move into the lower chamber, they can break up and circulate throughout the body and travel up into the brain.”
As is true in heart attacks, stroke must be treated as quickly as possible to prevent brain cell damage. Lisek says the stroke team at Beloit Memorial Hospital works quickly because of the very small window of time in which they can not only stop the stroke’s effects but also prevent future strokes.
“We have medicine that can dissolve clots on the brain, but it must be administered within a very short period of time,” Lisek says.
Beyond stroke, that prognosis depends on several factors including how supportive the patient’s family is.
“If we have a stable husband-and-wife team, that helps a lot,” Lisek says. “Without rehabilitation and help close at hand, patients may find it necessary to move into an assisted living facility or nursing home.”
Avoiding stroke involves a few simple starting points. “We have found that simple walking on a regular basis is one of the best ways to prevent strokes,” says Lisek. “Of course, it helps to address some of the other reasons why stroke occurs, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, uncontrolled diabetes, unhealthy habits like smoking, being overweight and sleep apnea. All of these can directly or indirectly influence the possibility of a stroke.”
Add in those conditions that cannot be modified, such as genetics, gender and age, and it’s easy to see why strokes are considered among the most concerning health issues facing men today.
Another common cause of death in men is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The American Lung Association (ALA) reports that COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, is the third leading killer of both men and women in the United States.
According to the association, COPD can be treated successfully with a variety of medicines, but it is important to know that there is no clear “best” drug for all people. By taking the right medicine at the right time, based on symptoms and need, patients can breathe better and be more capable of doing the things they love, while suffering fewer flare-ups.
Additionally, the ALA reports that pulmonary rehabilitation can help to rebuild strength and support a more active lifestyle. Thanks to recent changes in Medicare coverage, this relatively new treatment will be available to more seniors in the coming years.
COPD patients can also benefit from supplemental oxygen. The body’s cells get energy from the interaction of oxygen with food, which is then used to do everything from breathe to support body functions. When COPD reduces lung function to the extent that supplemental oxygen is needed, the patient is prescribed oxygen, which is available in stationary or transportable form.
Even nutrition, when there’s an appropriate balanced mix of nutrients, plays a major role in reducing the effects of COPD. A professional dietitian can help patients to understand which foods will help to keep them breathing easier, and which foods will further aggravate their condition.
Colds and respiration infections can complicate COPD symptoms and treatment, but some common-sense methods will help to avoid a cold. Patients should wash their hands often and use sanitizer. The ALA suggests avoiding crowds during cold and flu season, and asking family and friends to stay away when they are ill. Good oral hygiene is also vital to preventing bacteria in the mouth from migrating into the lungs. Brushing twice daily and seeing a dentist every six months helps. So too does keeping vaccinations current.
Men are faced with many health threats, but many aspects of good health are within their control. Taking a proactive attitude about your health is perhaps the most important one of all.