It may be tempting to throw up your hands and say, "There's nothing I
can do, it's all up to genes, chance, and the environment."
The fact is that research shows us every day that there are things we do to help ourselves live longer and healthier lives.
The amount of unexpected and intriguing new evidence prompted us to ask the question, "What is
health, after all, and how to we get there?" Howard S. Friedman, Ph.D., a
health psychologist who is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the
University of California, Riverside and co-author of The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study, helped us sort this out.
Using the data from a famous long-term study, Friedman and his
colleague and co-author Leslie R. Martin, Ph.D., looked at the behavior
patterns of 1,500 people over virtually their entire life spans. By
looking at the relationships between behaviors and how long the subjects
lived, they were able to determine what people did that made a
difference in longevity and what did not. "The beauty of The Longevity
Project is that we don't have to speculate about explanations," says
Friedman. "We can go back into the lifelong data and see."
Here, we'll discuss why it pays to pay attention not only to your
body, but to your life as a whole, often in ways you might not think of,
or may be contrary to what you grew up hearing. Envisioning health as a
cluster of interconnected behaviors and habits, rather than a
check-list of things to get done, is really what we should strive for.
Health Is a Path, Not a List of Behaviors
When health problems befall us, it's normal to feel
like there's some massive lottery system at play, and we either have a
winning or losing ticket. While there may be some element of truth to
this, Friedman says that there's actually less chance than meets the
eye. He tells us that "one of the most interesting findings of my
Longevity Project was that a lot of things that seem like chance are
really not random. Certain patterns and pathways lead step by step to
good things, while others lead step-by-step to unhealthy things and poor
health." Another way of thinking about this concept is that every
disease has a cause or, more likely, a set of causes, whether they are
identifiable to us in our relatively limited of understanding of
disease or not.
For example, cancer develops because the mechanisms
that normally keep our cell division in check break down. But this is
just a description of what happens, not the basic underlying cause. The
real, and less clear-cut, question is, "Why do these mechanisms
break down?" The answer is likely not random, but a combination of many
factors, including genetic predisposition, exposure to viruses or
toxins at some point during life, and lifestyle choices like diet,
smoking, alcohol consumption, and even certain social factors, is really
what gives way to the growth of a tumor. So discovering how these
factors interact is the real question.