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The Top 5 Killers of Men

By Bill Phillips and the Editors of Men’s Health

It was a sunny September day in the Pacific Northwest, and Jeff Hale had just closed a $1.5 million deal. To celebrate, he was taking the afternoon off, relaxing on his patio lounge, and playing ball with his dog. That’s when he began feeling compression high in his chest, some pain in his left shoulder, and an unsettling sense of dread. At 44, he was in relatively good shape, although 15 pounds overweight and under a lot of stress from work. At first, he thought it was an asthma attack and took a hit off his inhaler. But when that didn’t help, he remembered an article he’d read in Men’s Health.

“There were two things from that article I recalled,” he recounted to our reporter a few years ago. “One was that every heart attack is unique. My symptoms will be different from your symptoms. The other was, if you suspect you’re having a heart attack, take an aspirin.” Hale took two and drove himself to the hospital. He almost didn’t make it. Doctors found blockages in three arteries and performed a triple bypass the next day. “They told me I’d saved my life,” says Hale. “The aspirin thinned my blood, and the inhaler dilated my arteries.”

Heart disease is the number one killer of men, claiming the lives of nearly 400,000 fathers, friends, brothers, and sons every year. Often, the difference between life and death is razor thin—remembering to pop an aspirin, not delaying your trip to the E.R.

This week is National Men’s Health Week, which was created by Congress in 1994 to raise the awareness of the health threats uniquely facing men. To commemorate, we’ve put together a list of the most popular ways to die as a man in America. Collectively, these diseases kill nearly one million of us annually. And, chances are, your lifestyle or genetic profile puts you at risk for at least one of them.

But, as Jeff Hale learned, our fates are not sealed. If you understand your risks, and learn how to negate them, you can outrun the reaper. Here’s how:

Why you’re at risk:
Each year, nearly 50,000 American men die of a stroke, according to the American Heart Association. I know what you’re thinking: But those are really old men. But you’re wrong. In fact, 1 in 14 stroke victims is younger than 45. As a neurologist I interviewed a few years ago told me: “If you did MRI scans on a hundred 40-year-olds, you’d see that a large number have already had a silent stroke.” And that’s scary because small, silent strokes often precede large, debilitating strokes.

What you can do about it: Keep your blood pressure at 120/80 or lower. Every 20-point increase in systolic BP (the top number) or every 10-point rise in diastolic BP doubles your risk of dying of a stroke, says Walter Kernan, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Yale University. The good news: Simple lifestyle changes can dramatically reduce your risk. Assess your stroke risk right here, and learn how to turn the odds in your favor.

Why you’re at risk: Nearly 60,000 men died from COPD—which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema—in 2006, according to the CDC. The chief cause: the Marlboro Man. In fact, smoking causes 80 percent of COPD deaths. Considering that tobacco use has also been directly linked to the other man killers on our Top 5 list—notably, heart disease (#1) and cancer (#2)—you have to ask: Why are people still smoking?

What you can do about it: It’s pretty simple, really. You need to figure out how to kick butts for good. Improve your odds by joining a gym—smokers who are trying to quit often fall off the wagon during stressful moments. Regular exercise lowers levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the brain. Warning: Going cold turkey is one of the least successful ways of quitting. Find out how to tilt the odds of success in your favor by checking out Will You Be Able to Quit Smoking?

Why you’re at risk:
According to the CDC, 80,000 men die each year in unexpected tragedies, from sports injuries to fires to falls. But the most preventable accidental deaths are the 30,000 that occur on America’s roads every year.

What’s that? You’re a great driver? Not surprising that you think so. According to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 72 percent of drivers regard themselves as more skilled than everyone else. Researchers trace the bias to a fundamental information imbalance, namely that the poorest performers are also the least able to recognize skill (or lack of skill) in themselves or others.

But fine, let’s say it’s true. Then consider the guys you’re sharing the road with: Surveys indicate there’s a nearly 80 percent chance they speed regularly, and a 53 percent likelihood they talk on the phone while driving. There’s a 4 percent chance they run red lights—on purpose—and a 2 percent chance they have driven after drinking too much. These guys make Evel Knievel look like a defensive driver.

What you can do about it: If you do one thing today, make it this: Stop texting while driving. You’ve probably heard that texting behind the wheel is just as dangerous as drinking and driving. Not true. Texting is way more dangerous. In fact, texting increases your risk of a crash by 23 times (versus 11 times for driving under the influence), according to a Virginia Tech study. Step into the MH Driving Simulator and test how well you multitask behind the wheel.

Why you’re at risk:
The Big C killed nearly 300,000 men in 2010, according to the American Cancer Society. Lung cancer tops the list, accounting for 29 percent of all cancer deaths, followed by prostate cancer (11 percent) and colon/rectum cancer (9 percent). We all know that smoking causes lung cancer, but the risk factors for prostate cancer are less well known. Yet, it’s one of the most common—1 in 6 men will get prostate cancer in their lifetimes—and least understood killers of men.

What you can do about it: Take our quiz to determine your risk. If you’re at high risk, put certain staples of the Mediterranean diet on your plate. A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute shows that men who eat more than 10 grams of garlic or scallions (about three cloves of garlic or 2 tablespoons of scallions) daily have a 50 percent lower risk of prostate cancer than those who eat less than 2 grams. Sound like too much of a good thing? Other studies have linked the lycopene in cooked tomato products to lower prostate cancer risk; aim for at least two servings a week. And if you really like coffee . . . Harvard researchers found that drinking 6 cups a day reduces your risk of developing advanced prostate cancer by 59 percent.

Why you’re at risk:
This is the deadliest disease known to man. More than 1 in 3 adult men have some sort of heart disease and more than 390,000 men died of the killer in 2007, according to the American Heart Association.

But you’re a fit, healthy guy, right? Why would you die of heart disease? Believe it or not, not every victim of the disease is overweight or inactive. Men’s Health Editor Peter Moore discovered this eight years ago. He was doing everything right: He was thin, exercised regularly, and ate a healthy diet. But none of that prevented one of the arteries in his heart from becoming 99 percent blocked. Still think you’re risk-free? You can find out your heart disease risk by clicking right here.

What you can do about it: Small lifestyle changes can yield big results when it comes to improving heart health. Here are four simple changes you can make today:

• Exercise for 30 minutes. Middle-aged men who exercise vigorously for two hours a week (aim for 30 minutes, four times a week) have a 60 percent lower risk of a heart attack than inactive men.

• Lose the spare tire. If you’re overweight, dropping 10 to 20 pounds lowers your risk of dying from a heart attack. In fact, a 10-year study found that overweight people had heart attacks 8.2 years earlier than normal-weight victims.

• Drink five glasses of water a day. Men who drink that many 8-ounce glasses are 54 percent less likely to have a fatal heart attack than those who drink two glasses or fewer. Researchers say the water dilutes the blood, making it less likely to clot.

• Count to 10. Keeping your cool under stress may keep you alive. Men who respond with anger are three times more likely to have heart disease and five times more likely to have a heart attack before turning 55.

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