In Brief

American men--especially minority and poor men--are sicker and more death-prone than women across the life span, but the reasons have more to do with social and behavioral factors than biology, according to a recent report in the American Journal of Public Health (Vol. 93, No. 5).

"Beliefs about masculinity and manhood that are deeply rooted in culture and supported by social institutions play a role in shaping the behavioral patterns of men in ways that have consequences for health," says author and sociologist David R. Williams, PhD, senior research scientist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor.

Western culture, for example, socializes men to be the breadwinners of their families, and men often base their sense of self on their income levels, notes Williams. Research shows that unemployment and job insecurity--which have increased in the past decade--can negatively affect men's health, causing elevated stress levels, illness, disability and death. But while being unemployed or poor is one of the "strongest known determinants of variations in health," Williams reports that men at all economic levels have poorer health compared with women.

Men are also more inclined to use tobacco, alcohol or other drugs to cope with stress, Williams says, he found. For example, they're more likely to smoke than women and twice as likely as women to consume five or more alcoholic beverages in a day--and to believe the drinks won't impair their driving.

But Williams's report also offers hope by suggesting ways to improve men's health by, for example, bettering their economic circumstances and work conditions and offering them increased, culturally appropriate educational outreach and clinical interventions.