Women have outlived men by a pretty big margin for as long as anyone has been keeping track. In 1989, men lived an average of seven years less than women. But according to recent data on lifespan in both genders, men are closing the gap.
In 2009, the longevity gap was only five years. Put another way: life expectancy rose by 4.6 years in men in the interim between ’89 and ’09, while women’s life expectancy rose by only 2.7 years during that time.
Congratulations, gentlemen: looks like we’re doing something right.
The impact of estrogens on cardiovascular health is one likely reason for the gender lifespan gap. So is the fact that women’s DNA blueprint actually seems designed to create longer lifespans.
DNA segments called telomeres believed to be the human body’s ‘doomsday clock,’ are longer on average in women than in men. Every time a cell divides, the telomere shortens, and when it’s gone, the cell dies. Longer telomeres mean longer life – unless, of course, you pass away in a tragic kite boarding mishap or meet your end in some other untimely fashion. In other words, women’s longer lifespan is a reality at the level of individual cells.
This being said, telomeres don’t tell the whole story, and neither do hormones. Evidently there is a great deal that can be done to modulate the destiny as it’s programmed into male physiology.
It’s Men’s Health week, and Father’s Day is June 16th. In honor of all that is manly, let’s look at how we can keep up this pace – maybe even catching up in terms of lifespan with the women in our lives:
This goes without saying, but don’t smoke.
In 2013, a man is less than half as likely to smoke tobacco as in 1965. They’re quitting at a rate faster than women, who have only cut back by 15% in the past four decades while 30% of male smokers quit the habit. This is having an obvious benefit in terms of men’s lifespans.
Exercise daily or almost daily.
Nearly half of all men report regular exercise; we’re exercising more than women. Regular exercise is essential for heart disease and cancer prevention, and just for helping a man have more life in his years. Moderately vigorous exercise increases testosterone levels too – another heart-protective factor that’s generally good for energy, body composition and sex drive.
Best bet for efficient, effective workouts: interval/circuit training. Once a day, do some moderate to high intensity pushups, sit-ups, squats and other large-muscle-movement strength moves with brief rest in between, interspersed with a few easy sprints or hill climbs. Or head to the weight room or circuit training fitness classes if that’s what you enjoy. Whatever you choose to do, try to be active at least once a day, and keep shaking things up to keep it fun and interesting.
Eat your vegetables.
Overall fruit and vegetable consumption has risen nearly 10% in the past few decades. If men fill their plates morning, noon and night with vegetables, they’re likely to continue to gain lifespan years.
Best vegetables: Alfalfa, asparagus, bell peppers, broccoli, bean sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, collards, cress, cucumbers, dill pickles, endive, fennel, those mixed greens they sell at the supermarket, green onions, kale, leeks, mushrooms, okra, hot peppers, radish, sauerkraut, spinach, swiss chard, turnip, and zucchini.
What about fruit? Consume in extreme moderation if you are on a weight-loss track. Fruit is Nature’s way of packaging sugar. They are tasty, yes, and highly nutrient-dense, but something to enjoy only occasionally, and never to substitute in place of veggies.
Making Longevity Delicious
If you don’t eat your vegetables because you think they don’t taste good, I have 3 words for you: Learn. To. Cook. I know a lot of guys have never even been near a head of chard or a fennel bulb. Please believe me: if you know what you’re doing, you can make any vegetable taste fantastic. It’s not that hard. It’s a great investment in your long-term health…and the significant others in your life will be very impressed. I know guys who learned all they know from a few good cookbooks (Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything is a classic) and watching the Food Network or cooking shows once in a while.
If you eat out more than you eat at home, choose restaurants that will understand when you request meals that don’t violate these dietary dictates, and don’t be afraid to order food a la carte. My habit is to order a nice piece of fish or beef along with a side of vegetables plus a side salad. Most decent restaurants can pull this off for you very nicely. Flavor it up with some sautéed onions and mushrooms, and you’ll be happier than anyone else at your table.
If you live near a Whole Foods market, try their hot food bar for longevity-friendly ready-made meals.
Eat moderate amounts of healthy meats and fish.
This isn’t just for protein; everyone with a medical degree should understand that it is completely possible to get a full complement of proteins without eating any animal foods at all. I recommend these foods because they are packed with fat-soluble vitamins and healthy omega-3 fats, all of which prevent the illnesses most likely to do men in before their time. Choose organic, lean versions where possible.
Dr. Cavazos’ preferred protein sources:
Fish: bass, catfish, crab, clams, cod, frog legs, grouper, haddock, mahi-mahi, mussels, pike, perch, red snapper, sea bass, shrimp, scallops, squid, swordfish, tilapia, tuna, trout, walleye, wild salmon
Meat: bison, deer, elk, flank steak, ground beef, liver, rabbit, pork, sirloin, round steak, tenderloin
Fowl: chicken, turkey, 4 egg whites scrambled with 2 egg yolks, pheasant
Follow the QTQ principle.
QTQ is an acronym I use to describe the ideal longevity diet. It stands for Quality, Timing and Quantity. Eat the right foods at the right time in the right amounts.
Breakfast should consist of water, protein and some good carbs. Example: 2 scrambled eggs, a small bowl of oatmeal and a cup of coffee
At lunch, have a salad with lots of greens and some protein, and some more water. Example: Salad dressed with lemon juice and a little salt, plus tuna
Snack on fruit (non-citrus varieties like apples, pears, stone fruits or berries work best), or a few nuts.
Dinner should consist of protein, greens, and more greens. Example: Eight ounces of meat, two cups of green veggies and a big salad
A little ditty I wrote to help my patients keep all of this on track:
Remember to eat only fruits that crunch;
And vegetables colored all the way through to munch.
Go and eat the meat that is lean,
And add good fats (oils) that are liquid and clean.
Crunchy fruits have lower sugar levels. Vegetables with color all the way through have higher nutrient density. Lean meats are low in artery-clogging saturated fats, and liquid, clean oils are high in heart-protective, anti-cancer polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
I never claimed to be a poet, but this is good information for any man who wants a fighting chance of living as long as the women who love him.
There’s more to the longevity picture than smoking habits, diet and exercise. Having a strong social and family network is enormously supportive of longevity. Having a spiritual or mindfulness practice also promotes longer, healthier life. Good preventive/integrative health care helps, as does bioidentical hormone replacement (for men, this involves testosterone) where called for. We’ll look at all of these factors in future posts.
Happy Father’s Day to you if you’re a dad, and happy Men’s Health Week if you’re a man!
Photo Credit: iStock