Man up, says Dr John Mayhew, and take your health seriously

by North & South / 06 October, 2017
In association with Sovereign

Dr John Mayhew, Sovereign’s Chief Medical Officer, urges men to take a common-sense, proactive approach to their health.

Reality Check-ups

New Zealand men wear their DIY badge with pride. They like their “she’ll be right”, Kiwi bloke credentials. But there’s one area where the number-eight wire mentality doesn’t cut it. Health.

Dr John Mayhew is Chief Medical Officer at health and life insurer Sovereign. He’s also Medical Officer for the Warriors and was formerly the All Blacks’ medic for 13 years. He believes men are moving in the right direction regarding health awareness, but says they have a long way to go. “We’re living longer and life expectancy for men is catching up to women’s. But males often get caught up in their job and family and don’t see the need to get medical treatment.”

He advises men to build a relationship of trust with their doctor. If they’re otherwise fit, a wellness check every couple of years may be all they need. The doctor can monitor blood pressure, cholesterol and weight, do a skin check and ask about any family history. As men get older, they should also discuss prostate testing.

In day-to-day life, Mayhew says men should moderate their alcohol and avoid cigarettes. “With alcohol, there’s a safe limit. There’s no safe limit with smoking and ‘social smoking’ is an oxymoron.” That said, he concedes that alcohol is still New Zealand’s biggest drug problem.

When it comes to diet, he says the biggest issue is not being overweight but being ‘over-fat’.

“I’m loath to give dietary advice, as there are so many schools of thought. Try to have a balanced diet. The biggest problem is still too many calories, no matter what it is.”

He suggests your BMI (weight in kilograms divided by height in centimetres squared, or use an online calculator) should be under 25. And as a general guide, a man’s waist measurement should be less than 100cm.

Being safe in the sun – using sun-screen and opting for long sleeves and a hat – is another given. As is exercising enough. Mayhew concedes technology is an exercise-deterrent. “Many jobs are not as physically demanding as they used to be – farmers get around on quad bikes and builders have all kinds of power tools. Most of us need to do exercise in some kind of formalised way.” The guideline is 30 minutes of aerobic exercise four to five times a week, adding in some strength exercises like sit-ups and press-ups. Mayhew warns that muscle strength declines as we get older and it’s important to maintain it or “suddenly you’re 75 and you can’t get out of the chair because your legs are too weak”.

Mayhew urges men to get to know their body, and take notice of any changes such as sudden weight gain or weight loss, a mole increasing in size or blood in the toilet bowl. “You need to take a common-sense approach,” he says. “Tell yourself, ‘There’s been a change in my health so I need to get advice.’ Don’t put it off.”

Mayhew has experienced a major health event himself. Last year, after a gym session he suffered a cardiac arrest (it was caused by a virus). Luckily for him, gym staff were quick to start CPR and follow up with a defibrillator. After three days in intensive care he woke up without any neurological problems. Mayhew believes defibrillators are vital life-saving devices and every school, workplace and sports team or stadium should have one.

“Last year, Sovereign paid out $70 million in health insurance claims and, in terms of cost for men, four out of the top 10 claims were cardiac-related and four were cancer-related.

“We encourage our customers to have regular check-ups, in fact we have a health screening allowance built into our Private Health Plus product so people can claim for bone, bowel, heart and prostate checks every three years. We also include sight, hearing and skin checks with this benefit.”

Of all New Zealand’s health statistics, the most alarming is our suicide numbers. And males dominate the stats, especially Maori and Pasifika men.

“Suicide makes up about five per cent of Sovereign’s life cover claims overall, but this jumps up to 15 per cent for those aged under 40 years. It’s a national tragedy and something that Sovereign is working hard to assist with, both as an employer and insurer.”

Former All Black John Kirwan was one of the first famous faces to say it’s okay to talk about depression. Others have followed, also encouraging men to talk to their doctors, join a men’s group, and build leisure, exercise and family time into the work week to avoid the build-up of stress.

Avoidance is the worst strategy when it comes to health, says Mayhew. Medical science is constantly improving, but it’s most effective when problems are dealt to early. And then, the only sensible action is action.

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