Years ago I wrote a book “The Longevity Code: Your Personal Prescription for a Longer, Sweeter Life.” The book and my PBS show “How to Live a Long, Sweet Life,” stressed the fact that length and quality of life go hand in hand.
Who wants to live a long, awful life? For that matter, had I titled the book and TV show that way, no one would have read or watched either one.
I visit a trainer every week to keep me on the right road to exercise. I learned years ago that one weekly visit can keep me on track for the entire week. One of my trainers years ago was a former hockey player. I asked him, “Why do you guys dress up in a sports coat and tie before you head out to the ice to beat each other up?” His response: “Look good, feel good, play good.”
That has stuck with me for the past few years as I think about the role the mind plays in all sorts of things, as in this case with hockey. So what role does your mind play in your life? What role does an “enjoy life” attitude play in your longevity?
According to new research published in the British Medical Journal, it may play more of a role than many of us previously thought.
England has a study, the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, that’s just like our Framingham Heart Study. Many people are followed for many years to see what impacts their health and what improves their life.
One of the measures involved a series of questionnaires about quality of life. More than 9,000 men and women in their 60s were looked at to see how they answered those questions in different years during the early and mid-2000s, with death statistics then matched to the results to see who lived and who did not.
Here are the four questions, asked in 2002, 2004 and 2006, with response choices of “not at all,” “sometimes,” or “often.”
- I enjoy the things that I do.
- I enjoy being in the company of others.
- On balance, I look back on my life with a sense of happiness.
- I feel full of energy these days.
People who responded negatively to each of the questions were much more likely to die over the next decade than those who responded positively. The more they enjoyed life, the more likely they were to still be alive. The less they enjoyed life, the more likely they were to be six feet under.
This was true even after the researchers controlled for factors we know contribute to a higher quality of life such as having enough money for a solidly middle class existence, having more education and the presence of underlying health problems.
Who were the ones more likely to answer that they had a more enjoyable life? Women, people who lived with others (either married or cohabitating), those with strong social bonds and those who continued to work.
Now, where is the bias in this study? You could argue, rightfully so, that having a serious medical illness will lead to a shorter and more difficult life, one with less enjoyment. But they found that some people with serious medical problems still had an enjoyable life while others with the same problems did not.
What might be happening here? If you enjoy life more, you’re more likely to have a healthier lifestyle.
Other studies have shown that already. You’re also more likely to take care to get screened for high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer, and more likely to see a doctor if you’re having a problem.
Then – and this is the more provocative idea – a positive, hopeful view of life leads to hormonal modulation through something called the cortico-limbic system. This system interacts with genes that protect our body by promoting lower levels of cortisol in our day-to-day activities and lower inflammatory markers. We know that inflammation plays a role in heart disease, the leading cause of premature death.
We also have known that subjective well-being means you’re less likely to have high blood pressure, less likely to have physical and cognitive decline and more likely to get better sleep. All of this just may add up to more resilience when a life-threatening illness strikes. All of these processes might contribute to a broad range of health outcomes.
My spin: This is an observational study, so you can’t draw any clear conclusions. But it is nonetheless intriguing to consider how your attitude doesn’t just affect your quality of life, but probably how long you’ll live, too. Stay well.
Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, professor at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and host of the public radio program “ZorbaPaster on Your Health,” which airs at noon Wednesdays on 91.1 FM, and noon Sundays on 91.9 FM. His column appears twice a month in The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.