Men less likely than women to connect individual or societal factors to cancer, chronic disease: study

Results suggest targeting public health messages based on demographic factors such as sex, income, political leanings and education levels.


Post-doctoral researcher Kimberley Curtin led a study showing that men are less likely than women to connect personal behaviour such as tobacco and alcohol use, unhealthy diet or lack of exercise with a higher risk of cancer or chronic disease — a finding that could help tailor public health campaigns to make them more effective. (Photo: School of Public Health)

Men are less likely than women to connect personal behaviour such as tobacco and alcohol use, unhealthy diet or lack of exercise with increased risk of cancer or chronic disease, according to a recent study by University of Alberta public health researchers.

The findings have implications for the way public health education programs and policies are developed, according to first author Kimberley Curtin, a post-doctoral fellow with the School of Public Health’s Policy, Location and Access in Community Environments (PLACE) research laboratory.

“If people don't think what they do matters or that their environment matters, then they’re not going to participate in healthy behaviours or support healthy policy options,” Curtin noted.

“Promoting health and preventing illness require us to be sensitive to people’s context and circumstances — one-size-fits-all messaging or actions do not reach everyone,” said Candace Nykiforuk, professor and associate dean of research in the School of Public Health, director of the Centre for Healthy Communities and lead investigator of the PLACE lab. “This can lead to critical disparities in health outcomes that are more costly to address later.”

Candace Nykiforuk
Public health professor Candace Nykiforuk says the study reaffirms that “one-size-fits-all messaging or actions do not reach everyone,” and that health promotion efforts need to be sensitive to people's circumstances. (Photo: School of Public Health)

Personal versus societal prevention

The researchers examined results from 1,200 Albertans who responded to the 2016 Chronic Disease Prevention survey, tracking relationships between socio-demographic factors such as sex, age, education, employment status and income, and perceptions about causes and responsibility for chronic disease and cancer. 

They found men were more likely to believe that cancer is not preventable and that treatment is more important than prevention. Left-leaning and centrist voters were more likely than right-leaning voters to support public policy interventions for alcohol, tobacco and obesity problems at a societal level. People with less education and lower incomes were less likely to feel that getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight or eating fruits and vegetables could reduce their cancer risk.

“These results can give us insight into people’s appetite for different policy options — for example, individual education programs versus those with society-wide impacts, such as limiting locations and density of fast-food restaurants relative to healthier dining options,” Curtin explained.

She noted that public health policies have been proven to support people to make healthy choices.

“We are all a product of our environment, so public health policies are meant to increase access, awareness and availability of resources, so the burden isn't entirely on the individual,” Curtin said.

Helping messages reach the right people

She said the study results indicate that tailoring public health campaigns for specific demographic groups could help them better understand how to modify their behaviour and reduce their risk for disease.

“While men in Canada do engage in more physical activity compared to women, they also have higher rates of alcohol and tobacco use,” Curtin said.

“Perhaps targeting them with a message like, “It can happen to you,” providing some statistics to men about their actual risk, may be a way to mitigate some of that.”

Curtin said she plans further research to understand how different variables such as gender, income and education interact to affect views and beliefs about healthy behaviour.

The study received financial support from the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada, and Alberta Innovates.