By Bruce S. Rabin, MD, PhD
The advantages of staying healthy, getting older, and then dying quickly reflect personal and societal good. Personally, health is associated with happiness and joy; not being in discomfort nor a burden to oneself or family. For society, the less money required to support illness means more money available, for example, for schools, parks, and road repair, rather than high health insurance premiums.
The goal we all should strive to achieve is to remain healthy as we continue to age and then have a quick demise. Indeed, this is possible as the duration of illness before death will be decreased the longer one stays healthy. Ideally, we will stay healthy, get older, and die quickly.
We have a prescription for reducing the extent of disease and increasing the likelihood of health throughout life. Healthy aging is not only a matter of eating right, exercising, and not smoking. It also involves learning how to manage all the social, psychological, and environmental stresses in life and acknowledging that healthy aging begins when we are a fetus.
Our prescription is to first become knowledgeable that:
1. Behaviors of the pregnant mother influence the long term mental and physical health of the child by affecting the structure and function of the developing brain. Thus, the mother’s nutrition, physical fitness, not smoking, and properly managing stress, are all essential ingredients for long term health of the child.
2. Healthy aging is negatively affected by childhood abuse whether it is physical, emotional and/or sexual. The more abuse, the greater the risk of mental and physical health problems. This occurs because abuse of children alters the structure and function of their brain.
3. Not being bullied and enjoying the time you spend in the workplace or personal relationships is also important to increase the likelihood of good health as we age.
Because the common biologic pathway thru which maternal stress, childhood abuse, and bullying alter mental and physical health is by elevating the concentration of stress hormones (glucocorticoids and catecholamines) in the blood; it is critical to learn how to decrease reactive stress-hormone inducing responses (fight-flight) in favor of increasing mental and physical health-inducing responses. While it is often not feasible or possible to remove the stressors from our lives there are many activities we can easily do to help keep the concentration of our stress hormones low.
Our prescription for good health thru the aging process requires that:
1. Pregnancy is a time when a healthy diet is available, time for relaxation is provided, maintenance of physical activity occurs, and levels of life stress are managed by engaging in behaviors that reduce the response of the brain to stress.
2. The amount of abuse of children is reduced by helping adults reduce their likelihood of abusing children. To do this adults must be made aware of the effects of abuse on mental and physical health and must care about it. We must provide resources to help adults learn calming methods when they are upset by increasing abilities to cope with stress so when they are upset they do not lose control and take it out on children. Adults must help each other and when someone is upset a friend or relative or colleague needs to tell them to practice calming behaviors, for example, taking 3-5 deep breaths.
3. An increased understanding of the harmful effects of bullying in schools, and the workplace, or in general relationships is achieved so that there will be reduction in bullying. Bullying not only affects short term health but health across the lifespan.
If we each adopt a healthy lifestyle, it sets an example for people we care about and who care about us. We believe that if every adult understands that if they use healthy lifestyle behaviors the children and/or grandchildren who love them and who they love, are likely to use the same healthy behaviors. We are not doing it for ourselves; we do it to become a meaningful role model for those we care about.
Imagine a debilitated 75 year old individual struggling to move and in chronic pain and discomfort and being a burden. Then imagine a 75 year old individual who is smiling, talking, and walking with friends, laughing with their grandchildren, and whose children enjoy being with them. We are not saying that the latter person is without pain, indeed they may have pain and discomfort from arthritis. However, the pain does not bother this person as much as the other. Increasing the ability to cope with stress can contribute to learning those skills to age as the latter person.
Many parents and grandparents don’t recognize the warning signs of unhealthy levels of stress in themselves or in their children, who are particular susceptible to its negative consequences. Indeed, without greater attention to better management of stress, many of today’s stressed-out kids will go on to become chronically stressed-out, ill adults.
The behaviors that help to reduce the effect of stress on health are:
• Having a social support system that we enjoy and can depend upon. Friends are important; being lonely may increase the risk of stress induced disease development.
• Being optimistic that things will go well and those problems that occur will not alter our basic belief that “I am a good and well-liked person”. Always feeling that you are responsible when things go wrong can increase your chance of becoming depressed and developing heart disease and diabetes.
• Having a sense of humor so that amusement in events and even laughter are in our daily lives (remember the old saying that “laughter is the best medicine”).
• Being physically fit as appropriate for our age, rather than being sedentary. This does not mean we have to go to a gym and work out. We simply need to increase the amount of our daily walking.
• Participating in religious activities or having a spiritual nature that allows enjoyment, relaxation and calming behaviors when faced with stress
Unfortunately we do not spend enough time planning for the quality of our health as we age. As this planning must begin early, before young children are aware of factors that may affect their health several decades into their life, it is the responsibility of the adults who love them to begin practicing a stress reduction planning process with them.
Children do not know what healthy behavior is. They learn from those they love. Each of us needs to become a healthy lifestyle role model so our children and grandchildren will grow up using healthy behaviors throughout life. Then the likelihood of enjoying a high quality of both mental and physical health thru the aging process is measurably enhanced.
Dr. Bruce Rabin, is Professor of Pathology and Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and Medical Director of the Division of Clinical Immunopathology and the Healthy Lifestyle Program for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Dr. Rabin first joined the University of Pittsburgh in 1972, where he has remained ever since.
Dr. Rabin discovered early on that stress – a variable in every person’s life – exerts a profound influence on the human health. And, from that point forward, his work focused on the effects of stress and the pathways of communication between the brain and the body – the mind/body connection.
Equally important to his research, he has been instrumental in moving science and research to real-world application by developing programs designed to help people identify, learn and adhere to behaviors that will maintain their wellness, and lower their risk of developing serious and potentially life threatening conditions and diseases.
With a career that has spanned over 40 years, Dr. Rabin’s work is widely referenced – from the scientific community to national news to local health care articles; he has been sought out to serve on a number of government panels to advance awareness and promote research in mind-body medicine. His research has yielded more than 300 publications, and his research laboratory has trained over 50 young scientists who are making their own contributions to medicine– which he once described as his single-most significant accomplishment.
Dr. Rabin has been quoted extensively on the topic of stress by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also been featured in national magazines including, Prevention, Self, First for Women, Redbook, Woman’s Day, Health, Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour.
As a result of his work, people of all ages, socioeconomic levels, educational backgrounds and lifestyle – are learning more about how to more effectively cope with the stress in their lives; new approaches to disease have been understood; mind-body connections are more widely and universally recognized; and innovative approaches to health care management have emerged.
Bruce S. Rabin, M.D., Ph.D.
Professor of Pathology and Psychiatry
Medical Director, Division of Clinical Immunopathology UPMC-Clinical Lab Building-Room 4024
3477 Euler Way, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, Phone: 412-647-6150, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org