This Father’s Day, we need to focus on dads’ health

A new study should be a wake-up call about men’s struggles.
(StockSnap/Pixabay.com)

Credit: Pixabay.com

Credit: Pixabay.com

(StockSnap/Pixabay.com)

For far too long, the challenges faced by fathers have taken place largely in the shadows. A study several years ago, for example, found that women and men experience similar levels of work-life conflict. Lead researcher Kristen Shockley, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, wrote then that men “are silently struggling,” and that the lack of attention given to them is harmful.

That need for greater attention makes a newly published study especially important. Scientists from Northwestern University and Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago tracked nearly 3,000 men of diverse backgrounds and found that fathers have worse heart health than those without children.

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

“The changes in heart health we found suggest that the added responsibility of child care and the stress of transitioning to fatherhood may make it difficult for men to maintain a healthy lifestyle, such as a healthy diet and exercise,” corresponding author John James Parker said of the study. He added, “A lot of times we focus on the health of mothers and children, and we don’t even think of fathers, but their health has a major influence on their family.”

Since I became a father close to 18 years ago, I’ve been tracking these kinds of disparities. Right around the time my son was born, I began work as an on-air fact checker at CNN. While correcting politicians, pundits, and other people in the news, I also took an interest in fact-checking studies and reports about modern families.

It quickly became clear to me that the reality of today’s dads is the opposite of the stereotype. Rather than being lazy or “doofus dads” incapable of handling basic responsibilities at home, these men are trying to do what so many women have talked about for years: the proverbial “it all.”

After my own legal battle for fair paternity leave catapulted me into the news, I wrote a book, “All In,” focused on dispelling myths about fathers. I continue to combat many of these online, including the pernicious idea that most Black children are fatherless. In reality, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that most Black fathers live with their children and are, on average, the most involved dads at home.

I’ve interviewed dozens of fathers across the country and asked how “stretched out” they feel on a scale from 1 to 10. Virtually all answered 10; a few said eight. They shared with me the behaviors they’ve picked up to try to handle that stress — some healthy, such as therapy and exercise; others not so healthy, like excessive amounts of alcohol or hours playing video games instead of getting adequate sleep.

When I discuss the realities of modern fathers, I get as much support from women as I do from men. Many women are worried about men they know and love, and they want to know how widespread these struggles are. So it was no surprise to me that, after I recently launched the fact-checking podcast They Stand Corrected, I heard from men and women asking me to explore this new heart health study.

Life for just about everyone is becoming more stressful each year. Given the deep ties between stress and heart health, these new findings don’t surprise me. To be clear, a single study is not enough to make sweeping generalizations. But it should lead more researchers to look into the health needs of dads.

There is, however, another finding from this new study that may seem counterintuitive: It found that fathers, on average, live longer lives. Why might that be? The authors suggest that parents may be more likely than non-parents to have caregivers in their older age, helping them make medical appointments and manage medications. They also show lower rates of depressive symptoms, which could be connected to time spent with family.

My own research has shown me other possible reasons as well. Some men have told me that having kids made them give up certain risky behaviors. The last thing they want to do is have an accident that could kill or seriously injure them.

This Father’s Day, I hope we can shine a light on the health needs of fathers. Just like mothers and all other caregivers, dads need support, understanding, flexibility in the workplace and access to top-notch care for physical and mental health. They need to be reminded to take care of themselves — putting the proverbial oxygen mask on — just as they’re taking care of their families.

Ultimately, that’s the biggest Father’s Day gift the nation’s 70 million dads can get.

Josh Levs is host of the podcast and newsletter They Stand Corrected.