The author Ken Nerburn once said, "It is much easier to become a father than to be one." Beyond the obvious humor, there is a health-related idea here. Being a father and a member of modern society presents some great challenges.

Often, the odds are working against us, particularly in men's health. Research has shown that men die an average of five years earlier than women; men's life expectancy is an average of 76 years. The leading cause of death in both men and women is heart disease; more than half of all cardiac-related deaths are men.

The goal of our primary care providers today is to get us all to our best optimal health and to keep us there. Increasingly, they use a team approach by adding educational and coaching services. Their game plan is to encourage better heart and general health by decreasing the risk factors.

We are up against a formidable "risk-factors team." Players on the risk-factors team are all working hard to beat good fathers out of a healthy lifestyle. They have a deep bench, including lifestyle choices that lead to medical conditions. Right at the top of the order are smoking, inactivity, poor diet, and excessive alcohol use, all of which can lead to being overweight or obese, to diabetes, and to the buzzer-beater, erectile dysfunction.

Heart disease is a leading player for the risk-factors team. It is the number one killer of men. When it comes to good cardiac health, controlling high blood pressure is key. One in every three adult Americans, approximately 65 million, have a diagnosis of high blood pressure (hypertension). Over half of all Americans age 60 and older have hypertension, and over a lifetime, the risk of diagnosis is 90 percent.


Blood pressure often begins to rise in men starting at age 45, although it can start in younger men. African-Americans tend to develop it at younger ages and to have more severe hypertension. Obesity in a younger population can contribute to the diagnosis.

Hypertension is especially dangerous because it is often "silent." One in three people with hypertension don't know it. A person can have high blood pressure for years without knowing it, and this is when it has its most devastating effects.

Blood is under pressure in our arteries and circulatory systems, similar to water in a garden hose or water pipes in our homes. When blood pressure increases to a point greater than the circulatory system's capacity, a variety of problems can arise. Bulges in the arteries called aneurysms can form. Hypertension can lead to an enlarged heart, weakening its pumping efficiency. Many other body systems can also be affected, including kidneys and eyes, which contain very small arteries that may be damaged due to increased pressure over time.

High cholesterol is another major player on the risk-factors team. It can have a "hat-trick" effect. First, it causes plaque to form on the artery walls and thus puts men at a higher risk of heart attacks when one or more arteries in the heart become blocked. Second, it causes peripheral artery disease (poor circulation), limiting blood flow to the main arteries in the legs. And third, it can cause a stroke, which may have devastating, long-lasting or permanent effects on all aspects of neurological functioning.

Studies show that men tend to avoid seeking health care for urologic issues, including benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlarged prostate gland due to a benign overgrowth of prostatic tissue). This is a major cause of urinary frequency, especially during sleep, and in more severe cases can lead to urinary retention, where an individual is unable to urinate at all and requires a trip to the Emergency Department.

Prostate cancer is the most common non-skin cancer in the United States, affecting one in seven men. Prostate cancer screening is suggested starting at age 50, younger if there is a family history. A simple blood test can help track this condition.

Yes, the risk factors are formidable, but there are many things we can do to strengthen our team's defense against the risk factors. First and foremost, it's important to develop a great offence: knowledge! In order to compete, we need to improve our health literacy.

The individual is at the center of his own care and needs to know as much as he can to help obtain optimal health outcomes. Simply put, we have to understand what we are being taught about our health at many levels or we will not be able to put into practice the tools to maintain or improve our lifestyle.

As men and fathers, we can make changes to improve our well-being. Some training tips, small ones at first, not too time-consuming, can have great overall benefits.

First, seek out a Primary Care Provider and visit regularly, every six months to a year. Start no later than age 50, younger if medical conditions apply. Next, take your medications as prescribed. These simple practices have huge benefits.

Walking, moving, any healthy exercise, and deep breathing will help reduce stress. If you don't want to rush into big changes in your diet, just read the labels on processed food packages. Look at grams of sugar, mg. of salt, and processed carbohydrates. That should scare you enough to make some helpful changes.

Taking the time to understand the best strategies and to plan and implement small goals can make winning at optimal heath an adventure, not a game of risk.

Bill Monahan is one of Grace Cottage's Community Health Team RN Outreach Coordinators. Bill received his AA in Liberal Studies from Berkshire Community College, his AS in Nursing from Greenfield Community College, and his BA in Health Advocacy from UMass Amherst.