Optimists Are Healthier

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Over the past two decades research from around the world has produced a steady stream of scientific evidence that psychological traits, especially optimism can contribute to good health. Optimism does this by:

  • Reducing that sense of helplessness that stifles constructive action.
  • Giving a person a reason to stick to health regimens and seek medical advice
  • Reducing the number of bad events a person experiences because optimists are more likely to take steps to stop bad events once they begin
  • Fostering social support, which is important because close friendships reduce the risk for disease, particularly the recurrence of chronic disorders

How is this possible? States of mind, such as hope, can affect the rest of the body. When a person is depressed, catecholamines, one type of neurotransmitter, become depleted. When catecholamines get depleted, the brain’s internal morphine( i.e., chemicals called endorphins) increase. When the level of endorphins increases the immune system detects this and turns itself down. This reduction in the immune system is temporary in grieving people. On the other hand, a pessimistic outlook on tends to lower immune activity independent of physical health problem and transient emotional states. Unlike temporary states such as sadness during a bereavement, or depression in the course of a divorce, or a bout of illness, pessimism may be able to impair your health over the course of your entire life span.

Traditional views do not acknowledge a major determinant of health, namely our own thoughts. The reality is that we have much more control than we probably think we do. For example:

  • How we think, especially about our health, can change our health.
  • Optimists catch fewer contagious disease than pessimists
  • Optimists are more motivated to maintain better health habits than pessimists
  • The immune system of an optimistic individual works better than the immune system of a pessimistic individual
  • There is even evidence that optimists live longer than pessimists.

One of the most intriguing studies in this area has been going on for decades. In the mid-1930’s the William T. Grant Foundation decided to study healthy men throughout the course of their adult lives. The investigators were interested in studying exceptionally gifted people to learn more about what determines success and good health. Subjects were selected from five Harvard freshman classes. Investigators selected men who were physically fit and intellectually and socially gifted. This group of men cooperated fully with this demanding study. Participants have received physical checkups every five years, were interviewed periodically and had to fill out endless questionnaires. Their diligence has provided a treasure of information about what makes a person healthy and successful.

As time passed and the original investigators aged they decided to ask a younger man, George Vaillant, a brilliant young researcher, to assume responsibility for the continuation of this longitudinal study. George Vaillant’s first important finding from the study was that wealth at age twenty does not guarantee either success or good health. Instead he found a high level of failure and poor health among the men in the study including failed marriages, bankruptcies, premature heart attacks, alcoholism, and suicide. Indeed these men experienced tragedy at almost the same rate as men born at the same time in the the poorest areas of the inner city.

The original research challenge had been to try to determine factors predictive of success and good health. So what was going on? If wealth did not guarantee good health and success what did? Vaillant began to focus in on how men in the study dealt with challenging events in their lives. Information that had been collected from the men indicated that even while in college some of them handled bad events with what may be described as “mature defenses.” They used humor, altruism, future-mindedness and the ability to delay gratification to meet the challenges thrown at them. Interestingly some of the men never used these strategies. Instead they used “immature defenses” such as denial, and projection, i.e., blaming others for their problems. By the time they were sixty years old none of the men who used mature defenses in their early twenties was chronically ill. On the other hand over one-third of the men without mature defenses at age twenty were in poor health by the time they were sixty.

About the time the men in the study were entering middle-age, around age forty-five, a study involving 99 randomly selected men from the ongoing study was conducted. The men’s identities and state of health were kept from a second set of investigators that were given essays the men wrote as they returned from service in the World War II in 1945-1946. The essays were compiled into an explanatory-style portrait of each man. These explanatory-style summaries were then returned to the original investigators so they could determine what had happened to these men and whether the second investigators’ designation of individuals as having an optimistic or pessimistic outlook on life made a difference. What was discovered is that the health of the men at age sixty was strongly related to optimism at age twenty-five. The pessimistic men came down with diseases of middle-age earlier than the optimistic men and by age forty-five the difference in health was large. In fact optimism stood out as a primary determinant of health beginning at age forty-five and continuing for the next twenty years. In the next decade researchers will be able to learn if optimism predicts a longer life in addition to predicting a healthier one. While we all cannot be born wealthy, we can modify our outlook on life—especially if taking a more optimistic view leads to better health.

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Obesity Epidemic

gcadshvjncaxaxcdbcaixc4kkcabfrd5wcaapjbgtcavvpddccad7t9mpcapy4999cayl3l3fcavevdrocav56sm8cae3cmh3ca0fhwjacaew128bca242os2cav195t9cau8jzvzca07mjifcaswut16Obesity is epidemic in the United States. The number of overweight and obese Americans has grown at a disturbing rate, especially over the past few years. Today more Americans are overweight than are normal weight. Over sixty percent of the population is now considered to be overweight, with over 30 percent of the population considered to be obese. This is tragic for America. A very large (and growing) percentage of our citizens are at increased risk for developing serious chronic diseases, and face the prospect of early death. Meanwhile the entire society struggles under the burden of the resulting increase in health care costs.

While genetics plays a role in the predisposition to obesity, the actual development of obesity is strongly influenced by environmental factors, most notably a sedentary lifestyle. Exercise is essential in weight management. For example, if an extra 100 calories a day is consumed above that needed by the body, in one year that will result in a ten pound weight gain. This is particularly tragic since a 20 minute walk is sufficient to burn those extra calories for many people! There are a number of web sites that allow a visitor free access to calculations on how many calories an individual would burn doing various activities based on weight http://www.realage.com/racafe/exest.aspx is one such site. Pick a favorite food, snack, whatever and see the energy cost of that item for you. It is quite illuminating!

Portion size is a large part of the problem. As our lives have become increasingly busy, more and more Americans have turned to restaurant food, sit down or take out, for many of their meals. In an effort to attract customers many establishments began to offer larger portions of high-calorie food at inexpensive prices. Ever fond of a bargain, Americans have been quick to take advantage of these supersized portions. Since people tend to eat more if given more in a portion, calorie consumption has significantly increased. In time the larger portions have come to be considered normal and expected. Thus the amount of food we eat has increased during the same time period that more and more people have become sedentary. Weight gain has been the result.

Risks of obesity include: coronary artery disease (CAD), heart attack, heart failure, angina, abnormal heartbeat, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and triglycerides levels, lowered beneficial HDL cholesterol levels, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers such as prostate, gallbladder, colorectal, breast, endometrial and kidney. In addition, obesity increases the risk of developing gallstones (in women), liver problems such as an enlarged liver, cirrhosis, or a fatty liver, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), sleep apnea, asthma, shallow breathing (Pickwickian syndrome) which can lead to heart disease, and arthritis. Obesity also increases the risk of reproductive problems such as irregular periods, an increased risk of birth defects, especially neural tube defects, and an increased risk of death of the mother and baby.

The risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases as a person gets heavier. This is very unfortunate as diabetes is a major risk factor for the development of heart disease. While obese individuals are more at risk for arthritis than normal weight individuals, each additional few pounds of weight gain increases the risk for developing this potentially debilitating condition. Finally, recent research suggests that being obese can increase the risk of lowered mental ability, especially in memory and learning, in men over time.

The location of body fat is also important in assessing risk. If the fat accumulates disproportionably around the abdomen, it is an independent predictor of increased risk and morbidity. Thus individuals whose fat accumulates around the abdomen are at greater risk than individuals whose fat accumulates around the hips and thighs. A man with a waist measurement of more than 40 inches or a woman with a waist measurement greater than 35 inches is considered at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and coronary artery disease than normal weight individuals or those whose fat accumulates around the hips.