Don’t let your health suffer from neglect. Use these self-exams to uncover early warning signs of men’s health issues, from heart disease to testicular cancer.
According to a men’s health survey conducted by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), more than half of all men have not seen their primary care physician in the past year. “Neglecting men’s health is one reason why men have a higher age-adjusted death rate than women,” says Bruce B. Campbell, MD, a men’s health specialist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. If you are one of those men who need to pay more attention to their health, start by scheduling a regular physical with your doctor. You can also do these quick self-exams at home between check-ups — but they should supplement your professional care, not replace it.
“Measuring the fat around your belly could be the most important self-exam for most men,” says Dr. Campbell. “More than other fat, belly fat produces hormones that increase men’s risk for heart disease and diabetes.” To do this self-check, simply wrap a tape measure around your waist at the level of your belly button. If you measure more than 37 inches, you’re at risk for potentially serious health problems. If you need to lose some inches around your middle, ask your doctor to help you come up with a plan to attack that belly fat. Repeat this exam about once a month.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States — and men may be even more at risk than women. Data from the CDC show that as many as 89 percent of sudden cardiac events (such as heart attacks) occur in men. One quick self-exam to gauge the health of your heart is to check your pulse when you’re at rest. Place the first two fingers of one hand on the area at the base of the wrist on your other hand. Count your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply by six. A normal pulse (heart rate) for a man should be between 60 and 100. Anything outside that range could be a sign of cardiovascular problems. You should also pay attention to the space between beats. An irregular pulse could be a sign of atrial fibrillation or other serious heart issues. Repeat this self-exam at least once every month.
According to research from the AAFP, about 28 percent of men have been diagnosed with high blood pressure. The National Stroke Association estimates, however, that as many as 32 percent of people who have it don’t know it. You should see your doctor for an official reading, but you may also want to keep tabs on your blood pressure at home between check-ups. “A good investment is to pick up an easy-to-use blood pressure monitor at the pharmacy and learn how to check your own pressure,” Campbell says. “Be sure to sit and rest for about five minutes before using it.” Blood pressure can change from day to day, so write down your readings and look at the average over about 10 readings. Let your doctor know if the high (systolic) number is consistently above 120 or the lower number is consistently above 80. Repeat this self-exam every few weeks.
According to the National Cancer Institute, testicular cancer is the most common cancer among men ages 20 to 35. It affects some 8,290 people across all age groups, but fewer than 400 die of it. The American Cancer Society calls it “one of the most curable forms of cancer” — it has a five-year survival rate of 95 percent — but the earlier you find it, the better your prognosis is likely to be. “A self-exam of the testicles is a good way to find this cancer at an early stage when it is very treatable,” says Campbell. The best time to do a testicular self-exam is after a shower, when your scrotum is relaxed. Check your testicles for any lumps or changes in size, and let your doctor know if you find anything. Repeat this about once a month.
Oral cancer and gum disease are important men’s health issues. According to the American Cancer Society, 34,000 people will get oral cancer this year — the majority of whom will be men. Research shows that oral cancer is twice as common in men as in women, possibly because of cancer-causing HPV infections, which account for 72 percent of all oral and throat tumors. Cervical cancer is currently the most common cancer associated with the virus, but experts estimate that by 2020, the incidence of HPV-linked oral cancers in men may outnumber that of HPV-linked cervical cancers in women.
Oral cancer may show up as a sore or lump that doesn’t heal on the lips or in the mouth. To check for potential tumors, open wide and look and feel for any abnormalities, running a finger around and under your tongue. White or red patches in your mouth can be early warning signs of oral cancer. Always let your doctor or dentist know about these findings. Repeat this check monthly.
Every time you brush and floss your teeth, be on the lookout for swollen, painful, bleeding gums or loose teeth. Also check for a receding gum line; it will make your teeth look longer. Gum disease, or periodontitis, is a serious risk to men’s health and also may be a warning for more serious health concerns. Studies show, for example that people with periodontitis double their risk for heart disease. If your oral self-exam suggests gum disease, get to your dentist soon.
Once a month, you should do a total body self-exam to look for new moles or changes in old moles. Skin cancer is the most common cancer among men and women, affecting millions of Americans every year. Approximately 2.2 million people are diagnosed with basal or squamous cell skin cancer annually, and an additional 70,000 are diagnosed with melanoma, according to the American Cancer Society. Men are twice as likely as women to have basal cell cancers and three times as likely to have squamous cell cancers — but they’re lesslikely to do monthly self-exams or go to the dermatologist, according to data from the American Academy of Dermatology. Partly because of this, they make up more than half of all melanoma deaths.
To do a self-check for skin cancer, look for moles that change size, shape, thickness, or color. Let your doctor know about any growths that bleed, itch, burn, or crust over. Get naked and look everywhere, including in your scalp and on the soles of your feet. “The back is a common area for melanoma,” Campbell says. “Have a partner help you check those areas that are hard to see.” Also examine your ears: Research from the Skin Cancer Foundation found that many skin cancers are found on sun-exposed areas where you often don’t think to put sunscreen. Ears are particularly vulnerable for men because of shorter hairstyles and poor sun protection.
That’s right: Men get breast cancer, too. It’s relatively rare — about 2,140 cases are diagnosed annually, compared with 230,480 cases among women — but because men don’t get mammograms, breast self-exams are a good idea after you turn 60. The best time to do one is after a shower. Look for any change in the size of your breast and feel each breast for lumps. Also squeeze both nipples to look for signs of discharge. You should do this about once a month.