Three Little-Known Stressors That Are Killing Men

Jed Diamond lists three things that contribute to stress-related illness in men, and it’s not the ones you think.

It’s no secret that stress levels are on the rise. Much of our present-day stress involves our minds going around and around worrying about what could happen. “Stress—or as I like to think of it, the mind that’s running on overdrive—is now considered to be a leading factor in numerous illnesses,” says Woodson Merrell, MD, chairman of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center and author of The Source. “By some estimates, up to 80 percent of all illnesses are stress induced.”

Although stress impacts everyone, men are particularly vulnerable. We see that in the fact that men die sooner and live sicker than do women. Statistics from the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention show that men have a higher death rate for the ten leading causes of death (numbers are deaths per 100,000 population):

These statistics show, for instance, that for every 100 women who die of heart disease 150 men die. For every 100 women who commit suicide 400 men kill themselves and for every 100 women who are killed in a homicide 390 men are killed.

Since we know that stress is implicated in most causes of death, what are the most common stressors? We often think of such things as time pressures, unhealthy lifestyles, traffic jams, and financial worries. But major new research reported by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, indicates that more important stressors are ones we probably are not even aware exist.


The Three Killer Stressors Few People Know About

If we take a moment to think about it, the stress that impacts us the most strongly have to do with other people, particularly those who are close to us. Wilkinson and Pickett say that “the most powerful sources of stress affecting health seem to fall into three intensely social categories.”

  1.  Trauma experienced when we were children.
  2.  Low social status.
  3.  Lack of friends.


Early Trauma Affects Health Years After It Occurs

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study has demonstrated that childhood experiences affect adult health decades after they first occur. The ACE Study is a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. They found that childhood abuse, neglect, and exposure to other adverse experiences are common. Almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more.

Further, it was found that each adverse childhood experience increased the risk of health problems later in life.  For instance, compared to people with an ACE score of 0, those with an ACE score of 4 or more were twice as likely to be smokers, 7 times more likely to be alcoholic, 10 times more likely to have injected street drugs, and 12 times more likely to have attempted suicide.


Low Social Status Is Stressful

Sally Dickerson and Margaret Kemeny, both psychologists at the U.C.L.A. found that the stressors that most impacted our health were ones that threatened our sense of self-worth in the eyes of others. They collected findings from 208 published reports of experiments in which people’s cortisol (stress hormone) levels were measured while they were exposed to an experimental stressor.

They classified all the different kinds of stressors used in experiments and found that “tasks that included a social-evaluative threat (such as threats to self-esteem or social status), in which others could negatively judge performance, particularly when the outcome of the performance was uncontrollable, provoked larger and more reliable cortisol changes than stressors without these particular threats.”


Lack of Friends Can Be a Real Killer

“All the usual risk factors for heart disease—smoking, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and a high-fat diet—account for only half of all cases of heart disease,” says heart expert Dr. Dean Ornish. “Every so-called lifestyle risk factor laid at the door of cardiovascular illness by the medical community has less to do with someone having a heart attack than does simple isolation—from other people, from our own feelings and from a higher power.”

Thomas Joiner, author of Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success, calls men “the lonely sex.” And it points out that it gets worse as we age. “Men’s main problem is not self-loathing, stupidity, greed, or any of the legions of other things they’re accused of,” says Joiner. “The problem, instead, is loneliness; as they age, they gradually lose contacts with friends and family, and here’s the important part, they don’t replenish them.”

As the suicide statistics verify, men often feel increasingly alone as they get older, even when they are surrounded by those who care about them. “A postmortem report on a suicide decedent,” says Joiner, “a man in his sixties read, ‘He did not have friends…he did not feel comfortable with other men…he did not trust doctors and would not seek help even though he was aware that he needed help.’”

The importance of friends reminds me of the refrain from “Desperado” by the Eagles. “You better let somebody love you … before it’s too late.”


Photo—Young stressed and tired businessman from Shutterstock

About Jed Diamond Ph.D

Jed Diamond, Ph.D., is the Founder and Director of the MenAlive, a health program that helps men live long and well. Though focused on men’s health, MenAlive is also for women who care about the health of the men in their lives. Jed is the author of 14 books including his latest: The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come. Since its inception in 1992, he has been on the Board of Advisors of the Men’s Health Network.  He is also a member of the International Society of Men’s Health and a founding member of the American Society of Men’s Health. He blogs for the ThirdAge, Huffington Post, BeliefNet, Scribd, and other venues. He is the only male columnist who blogs for the National Association of Baby Boomer Women.His homepage is


  1. Move every three years and watch your circle of friends keep collapsing. Its pretty chilling.

    • Leia,

      Thanks for the support and interest in the articles. I will, indeed, write more. Having women support the efforts of men is very important. We can’t always help those we love, but we can always send them our love. We never know when something we say or do may make a difference. I learned over the years that putting out positive care and support feels good to me, and often helps in unexpected ways.

      Keep sharing here, its great hearing from so many different people.

    • Mark, you’re right. We live in a very mobile society and moving a lot makes it more difficult to keep our friendships alive and well. That’s why its important to make the efforts to reach back and keep in touch and also to develop new friendships that we can grow with. Thanks for your comments.

  2. My husband’s closest friend scores a “7”…I encourage my husband to go to their manly “Investor” meetings once a month so that they can vent and let off some steam….(although as a group they’re not very good at investing…but I guess that’s besides the point…)

    I think my husband’s friend needs a therapist or psychologist but his wife says he’s stopped seeing one for a while (I assume this is due to financial reasons…’s a vicious cycle…he worries a lot and the pressure builds but he doesn’t fork over the money to see a psychotherapist, so the pressure builds even more and the victims of his outburst are his wife and family, and by extension, me and my family because we are the ones they run to when he explodes…)

    I encourage my husband to stay available to him and I try to watch from the sidelines but I can see my friend getting scatter-brained because of all the pressures in her life….I feel like my hands are tied because I feel that the more advice (however gently it is put forth) I give her, the more it gets rejected…I just try to wait for her to tell me what she needs (which is really frustrating…)

    Please write more articles on this…!

  3. wellokaythen says:

    From what I understand, “stressor” is something that comes from the outside, and “stress” is something that develops inside, in response to the outside factors. I think that’s a key difference here, and cause for a bit of optimism about points 2 and 3. A lot of stress comes from the way that you react to particular situations. The more stressors you have, the more stress you are likely to feel, so they’re not totally independent of each other, but stress is still very much an inside-out thing and not an outside-in thing.

    Whether you are stressed out or not depends in part on what you want in the first place.

    So, for example, if you are worried about your social status compared to other people, then you will feel stressed about it if your status looks to be challenged. If you are comfortable with your life, then you are less likely to be triggered by a sense of disrespect. In part, on some level you are choosing to worry about your status. It is not simply a matter of other people forcing you to worry. You do have some partial control over your internal reaction to events. People with modest incomes can be quite content about their careers and live relatively stress-free lives while really wealthy people can obsess about every penny and drive themselves to an early grave.

    Same thing with loneliness. There is a difference between being alone (external) and being lonely (internal). If you crave companionship but can’t get it, then that is a source of stress. If you are naturally a bit of a loner and don’t feel like you’re missing out on a big social circle, then you won’t feel as stressed as someone who needs more friends but can’t get them. As an introvert, I find being around lots of people to be very stressful and being by myself to be very recharging. I’m positive my blood pressure is lower when I’m alone than when I’m out with friends.

    It’s important for a man’s sense of boundaries and sense of self to know that the rest of the world does totally control how you feel. You have some control over whether an experience is a stressor or not. (Sometimes you don’t really have control, but you’re not powerless over stress either.)

    Let the accusations of victim-blaming commence. Let’s get that over with.

    • Your points are well taken. We do have some control over how a stressor impacts us. When we’re feeling good about ourselves, and we feel confident in our abilities, and feel that others care about us, the stressors have less of an impact. As you point out, it also has to do with how we think about a stressor. If we feel that we are “less than” someone because we earn less money, we’re going to be in pain.

      On the other hand, changing the larger social environment can help everyone. In the past we used to look for individual causes for illness. When we discovered that clean water made a difference for everyone, we made changes in the larger social environment. We still get sick, but we have eliminated some of the big threats to our health.

      We need individual AND social health approaches.

  4. “You better let somebody love you”

    well nobody wants to love me so (as I assume is true of a lot of us) so I guess so much for that preventative measure 😉

    • Fred,

      We all suffer when we don’t feel loved. But there is love there for all, whether from a friend, a pet, our higher power, the love of God, or spirit, or simply the great unknown. I’ve found when I’ve felt the most unloved was when I felt unable to love others. Sometimes we just have to start by doing something nice for someone. I good deed can lead to good feelings which can ultimately lead to a rekindling of a love we may have felt we’d never find. Don’t give up.

  5. I’m 19 and I could tell you the last two from experience and the first one from intuition. Is this hard-hitting news to anyone?

    • The studies are good news to everyone. Simply the fact that they’re acknowledging this as a problem is the first step in listening to us.

    • This may not be news for many, but it gives us some tools to focus on real change: Making new friends, at any age, healing old wounds, and changing our economic system so that there is a more equal opportunity for everyone to have a decent job and pays a living wage, are all things we can support.

  6. Collin says:

    Well, that’s bad news for me! ACE score of 7! What prize do I win?

    • trey1963 says:

      I scored 7 also……My prize was Stoicism, Ulcers, Heart disease @25, Depression…’s the gift that just keeps giving…

    • Trey and Collin, With ACE scores of 7, it shows you’ve had a high number of risk factors growing up that make you more likely to have problems later. The good news is that all these things can be healing. In my new book, coming out in June, MenAlive: Stop Killer Stress with Simple Energy Healing Tools, I discuss ways this can occur and what we all can do to heal old wounds.

  7. It is great to see that health is being analysed in terms of environmental factors that contribute to adverse health or otherwise. This is great.

    These biopsychosocial factors chip away at the integrity of men’s life support systems and eventually the supports collapse into poor health outcomes. We cannot just treata health problem on its own without further examining how life course factors add up to create health problems, or indeed how life factors add up to create health. – June 11-17 2012

    David Thompson

    • David, Too often, we focus our attention in individual responsibility of disease. Certainly we have to take responsibility for our own health, but its important that we look at the big picture causes of health and disease, including personal, interpersonal, social, and cultural aspects. This article, as you point out, focuses our awareness on the biopsychosocial factors. We can change ourselves, but we also have to change the larger psycho-social inequities such as large gaps between rich and poor. I’m glad, too, that you mention men’s health week, June 11-17, 2012. Its a chance we can all commit to better health for men, and the women and children who love us.

  8. CanadaMike says:

    I have all three of those stressors, and I fully expect to die early. I accepted it two decades ago.

    • CanadaMike, thanks for having the courage and self-respect to respond here. Most of us have suffered from these kinds of stressors, often without even being aware of their impact. Knowing they are there and being willing to accept them, also frees us up to heal from the past, reach out to others as you are doing here, and change our economic system to make it more equitable.


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