Tough News for Tough Guys TO YOUR HEALTH Strong and silent behavior may be killing macho men

August 17, 1993|By Gurney Williams III | Gurney Williams III,Contributing Writer

In the competition between the sexes, women continue to win the longevity race, living on average about seven years longer than men.

Now psychologists offer an explanation that might help explain the gap. They say a large part of men's life-expectancy handicap is due to macho behavior.

Macho means "almost a caricature" of masculine traits, says William Pollack, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., and McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

It means using physical force instead of thought, Mr. Pollack says, playing the role of a loner and putting a lid on almost all emotions.

Mr. Pollack acknowledges that macho traits can't account for all of the disparity in life expectancy between men and women.

For example, there's evidence that testosterone, the male sex hormone, has an effect on cardiac function that may tend to shorten men's lives.

But, Mr. Pollack argues, "it's very likely" that machismo is the biggest factor in keeping men's life expectancy shorter.

For example, he points to recent research by Richard Eisler, TC psychologist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, indicating that when men try to play the strong, silent type in stressful situations, they show cardiovascular changes that could lead to heart disease.

"We have this idea of 'type-A' personalities," Mr. Pollack says -- characterized by aggressive, tense, competitive and ultimately unhealthy behavior. "I wonder if 'type A' is really 'type M.' "

Certainly, research suggests that bravado can be dangerous to your health.

Men are four times more likely than women to be homicide victims and one-and-a-half times more likely to suffer an assault, according to Gary R. Brooks of the Olin E. Teague Veterans Center in Temple, Texas.

"A lot of things about the male gender role get us into trouble," Mr. Brooks says. For example, men tend more than women to ignore warning signs of illness.

The love of macho also plays itself out in perilous "no-pain, no-gain" exercise and in aggressive driving, Mr. Brooks says.

Men are far more likely to die in vehicle accidents than women, probably because they take more risks behind the wheel.

Mr. Brooks says people who grew up in an era when John Wayne's swagger defined the male ideal are most at risk.

But recent research by Joseph Pleck at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women in Massachusetts shows that young men and adolescents are still vulnerable.

In a survey of 1,880 late adolescents and young adults, he found that "males who hold more traditional conceptions of masculinity also report higher rates of a variety of health risks."

They drink more, smoke more marijuana, have more sexual partners and put themselves at risk of sexually transmitted diseases by not using condoms.

Nor are women immune to the perils of macho behavior, Mr. Plecksays. "If women adopt [macho] values when they try to make it in the male world, they too could be at risk."

Psychologists say that one of the biggest heart-health hazards for the macho man is keeping his mouth shut about his feelings.

"Many men don't have easy access to more than the six emotionsthey talk about," says Marlin S. Potash, a psychotherapist who often works with men in her New York City practice.

"They've got angry. They've got fine. Tense. Anxious. Upset. Horny."

They're actually feeling much more, she says, but not expressing it. As a result they suffer stress while at the same time neglecting their health -- often in appalling ways.

While visiting a coronary-care ward recently, Ms. Potash says, she caught one man sneaking a cigarette in a bathroom. "He was in absolute denial about the seriousness of his situation," she says.

Ron Levant, a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, helps such men face feelings and break out of denial.

One strategy, he says, is teaching men to talk about their emotional lives. "The verbalization of feelings is one of nature's best ways of coping with stress," he says.

Mr. Levant gives his patients 3-by-5 cards to carry around so that when they experience an undefined "buzz" -- a physiological sensation that goes with an emotion -- they can write down the circumstances and later explore with Mr. Levant what they were feeling.

"We're talking about skills that 9-year-old girls learn as a matter of course," he says. But for some men, expressing feelings for the first time can be like a rebirth.

"One of my patients, in his 30s, said it was as though he had been living life in a black-and-white world," Mr. Levant says, "and suddenly it went to color."

Such a new, enriched outlook might just lead to a brighter, healthier and longer life.

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