Boys will live, on average, four years less than girls and the gap between rich and poor is even greater. A boy born in the poorest parts of Scotland can expect to die 13 years before those in the richest areas and a girl about 10 years earlier.
In the most affluent areas of Scotland, men experience 23.8 more years of good health and women experience 22.6 more healthy years compared to their most deprived neighbours. Poor Scottish males, in terms of their health, are among the most disadvantaged people in Europe.
What causes this disparity? For many years, the commonly held view was that heart disease and cancer were the main causes of premature deaths in poor Scots.
In fact, the main causes are deaths due to drugs, alcohol, suicide and accidents in younger people. In addition, men are less likely than women to seek help for their problems. They are certainly less likely to listen to advice on improving their health. They are, in health promotion terms, “hard to reach”.
Glasgow Caledonian University’s Yunus Centre recently published a study of an interesting way of improving well-being in men. The Men’s Sheds Association describes their sheds as “community spaces for men to connect, converse and create. Activities are often similar to those of garden sheds, but for groups of men to enjoy together. They help reduce loneliness and isolation, but most importantly, they’re fun.”
They make the point that, unlike garden sheds, they’re about social connections and friendship building, sharing skills and knowledge, and a lot of laughter.
By reducing loneliness and isolation and strengthening social connections, the Sheds had a positive effect on health. The researchers found that involvement in such a community encouraged those with alcohol and tobacco problems to reduce consumption.
The men who had painful conditions such as arthritis reported that the activities helped take their minds off the pain and helped rehabilitation. Some Sheds invited doctors and nurses to speak to their members about health.
Hearing about these issues in a friendly environment encouraged the men to make changes to their lifestyles. The creation of an inclusive and supportive ‘safe space’, where men felt relaxed and willing to discuss health problems, was key to making the change.
Sensitive issues such as mental health concerns which men might be shy of discussing in their normal settings were more easily discussed in the informal and friendly atmosphere of the Shed. Health-related activities could be tailored to meet the needs of the members who might be unlikely to attend public lectures.
Founded in the 1980s in Australia, Sheds were set up to support retired workers. Now, in Scotland, there are over 130 Men’s Sheds with around 2,500 members of all ages, not just the elderly.
The evidence is that they are having a positive effect on men’s health and well-being. Close working between the Sheds and health and social care agencies might provide new opportunities for improving the health of “hard to reach” men.
Sir Harry Burns is a Strathclyde University professor and former Scottish Chief Medical Officer