How can farmers adapt or change their behaviours to give them a better quality of life?
Academic, athlete and hurling coach Dr Noel Richardson is on a mission to change farmers’ attitudes towards their health
Academic and coach, Dr Noel Richardson
He lost six uncles, and his father, in less than a decade.
All bar one were involved in farming.
One aunt, of a similar age, passed away during the same period.
After witnessing such high levels of familial male death, compared to women’s death, over a short period of time, Dr Noel Richardson distinctly remembers thinking, “What’s going on here? Why is it, on average, that men are dying at a much faster rate than women? What is it about their approach and attitude to health that is causing such differences? How can farmers adapt or change their behaviours to give them a better quality of life?”
Dr Richardson, a lecturer and director of the National Centre for Men’s Health (NCMH) at IT Carlow, and former Irish international distance runner, has spent the last 10 years searching for answers.
“I basically asked questions. Men were never programmed to die five or six years younger than women. It’s principally down to cultures and attitudes and approaches to health,” he says.
Although Dr Richardson, originally from dairy farm in Ahane, Co Limerick, says our wider society has made tremendous progress in breaking the culture of silence associated with men’s health, when it comes to farming, he contends that the evidence doesn’t reflect the same results.
“There are a number of particular challenges. Studies show that the incidence of chronic disease, cardiovascular disease and cancers is much higher in farmers than the general population.
“Evidence also suggests that farmers have a disproportionate incidence of occupational injuries, lower-back problems and arthritis,” he adds.
A recent study on health risks in farming, carried out by the NCMH and the Irish Heart Foundation, found that 80pc of farmers had four or more risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Dr Richardson, who spoke on the issue at last year’s Teagasc National Dairy Conference, pointed out that the rate of cancer deaths among farmers is three times higher than other occupations, and 60pc of farmers who never smoked have developed chronic respiratory symptoms, while 56pc suffer from lower-back pain and musculoskeletal disorders.
Admission rates to psychiatric hospitals were also higher for farmers than for any other occupation group.
The former physical trainer for the four-in-a-row Kilkenny All-Ireland hurling champions, between 2006 and 2009, believes obesity is the most significant health problem facing farmers.
He links the epidemic to dietary behaviours and farmers overestimating how much activity they do as part of their routine work.
“A big problem with farmers is lifestyle issues. The classic things like smoking, drinking, diet, obesity and not doing enough physical activity.
“Although farming has traditionally been seen as one of the more active occupations, the mechanisation, and growing influence of technology on farms, has removed a lot of the physical work.
“Obesity is the precursor to cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension, and it is associated with a lot of cancers as well.”
Although cardiovascular diseases and cancers are more associated with older farmers, he is concerned that young farmers consider themselves impregnable to harm.
“Young men in their 20s and 30s think they are invincible. They don’t see any dangers or risks and they don’t equate their lifestyle in the 20s and 30s with the development of chronic diseases in their 40s and 50s – and this is something we really need to change.” Speaking on a personal level, the father-of-four – who previously represented Ireland at international cross-country world championships – says he is very aware of the fear some farmers experience when faced with health problems.
The 51-year-old was suddenly, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease six years ago.”It was a massive shock to the system initially,” he says, “and I felt that my whole world was thrown upside down.
“When it came to my own doorstep, I didn’t really know how to manage it, but in a way it has brought a greater empathy for me with all the men who are struggling with it,” he says, praising the support of his family, consultant neurologist and GP, who look after him so well.
“Once I conquered the initial fear and anxiety of being diagnosed with a chronic disease at the age of 46, I learned to manage it. I’m doing really well and I’m really proud of the way I’m living a very productive life,” he adds.
With the help of medication, Dr Richardson can still run 5km in 18 minutes. He runs every day.
He urges all farmers over 50 to have an annual health check. He also encourages farmers to attend Teagasc discussion groups on health.
“Farmers are intelligent, self- employed people – they know the importance of health for their livelihoods and income. If farmers support each other to make the right health and lifestyle decisions and to see their doctors regularly, that is an important step.
“It’s never too late to change a health behaviour and to try to make up for something that you feel has been lost – it is never lost.”
‘Farmers have a closer relationship with their vets than their doctors’
Farmers have a closer relationship with their vet than their doctor, says Dr Richardson.
He believes the farming community, and society at large, needs to challenge traditional masculine bravado — that “real men” don’t go to the doctor.
Dr Richardson, who lives in Kilkenny City, explains how these “rubbish notions” have the potential to undermine men’s capacity to look after themselves in later life.
He also challenges the traditional role that women have played in male farmers’ health, in which women are seen as the caregivers, while men are the providers. He says men need to take greater ownership of their own health.
“The reality is that many farmers probably see their vet more frequently than they would their
own doctor in any given year,” he says. “If farmers would only think about that for a second and ask themselves, ‘What does that say about how much I am prioritising my animals’ health above my own health?’
“Cows can be replaced but farmers can’t, so it’s really important to see that as a critical relationship in your life.”
He says it’s important that farmers seek out a GP they can trust and have confidence in, so that it becomes second nature to make contact without thinking too much about it.
“If you ignore something, it is likely to cause a much, much bigger problem down the tracks. If it’s a cancer scare; if you’re passing blood in your stool; if you felt a lump; if you notice a change in your skin; if there is a mole that changes over time, you could potentially be creating a much bigger problem.
“Early prevention and seeing your doctor is a critical thing for farmers.”
The Farming Independent.