Do We Need to Stay Sick Until Congress Saves Us?

The current healthcare bill may have a hard time passing in Congress. Do we need to wait for Washington to improve our health and well-being? ” The answer ought to be a resounding “NO.” As much as we need to reform the healthcare system, we really need what I call personal healthcare reform.

If we exercised the control we actually have over our health and well being, we’d find ourselves healthier and happier, and far less dependent on how any particular congressperson voted.

Imagine that you’re 20 years younger. How do you feel? Well, if you’re at all like the subjects in a provocative experiment my students and I conducted, you actually feel as if your body clock has been turned back two decades. We took a group of elderly men, to an isolated New England retreat that we retrofit so that in every possible manner it appreared to be 20 years earlier. The men—in their late 70s and early 80s—were told not to reminisce about the past, but to actually act as if they had traveled back in time. The idea was to see if changing the men’s mindset about their age might lead to actual changes in health and fitness.

After just one week, the men in the experimental group (compared with controls of the same age) had more joint flexibility, increased dexterity, improved vision, and less arthritis in their hands. Their mental acuity had risen measurably, and they had improved gait and posture. Outsiders who were shown the men’s photographs judged them to be significantly younger than the controls. In other words, the aging process had in some measure been reversed.

Currently most of us live sealed in unlived lives constrained by stereotypes we’ve adopted as truths. Once we shake loose from the negative clichés that dominate our thinking about health, we can mindfully open ourselves to possibilities for more productive lives no matter what our age.

I’m not simply stating a wish, there’s a great deal of hard science that backs up my assertion. Imagine if the eye chart at your optometrist’s office was upside down, with the letters going from small to large rather than large to small. Would that have any effect on how you see? My lab looked at just this question. A standard eye char—moving from large to small letter—creates the expectation that at some point you will be unable to read a line. When we turned the chart upside down, we reversed that expectation and people were able to read smaller letters than they could with standard charts. Their expectation—their mindset—improved their actual vision.

But other health consequences might be more important than that. In another study, we considered how clothing can be a trigger for aging stereotypes. Most people try to dress appropriately for their age, so clothing in effect becomes a cue for ingrained attitudes about age. But what if this cue disappeared? We found that people who routinely wear uniforms as part of their work life, compared with people who dress in street clothes, missed fewer days owing to illness or injury, had fewer doctors’ visits and hospitalizations, and had fewer chronic diseases—even though they all had the same socioeconomic status. This doesn’t mean we should all start wearing uniforms. The point is that we are surrounded every day by subtle signals that aging is an undesirable period of decline. These signals make it difficult to continue developing a healthy mindset throughout adulthood.

Similar signals also lock all of us—regardless of age—into pigeonholes for disease. We are too quick to accept diagnostic categories like cancer and depression, and let them define us. Doing so preempts the possibility of a healthful future.

That’s not to say that we won’t encounter illness or bad moods—or that dressing like a teenager—will eliminate those things completely. But if we’re open to the idea that the common beliefs we hold don’t have to be correct, and begin exercising the control we have over our health, we just might feel as healthy as we did when we were younger.

So how do we heal ourselves? First, we should take medical information about our health with a grain of salt. Medicine is not an exact science and only tells us what may be true for most people under the tested conditions, and may not be true for any of us individually—none of us is the norm. Second, realize that nothing stays the same. Even if we think we have some symptom—an ache, depression, etc.—all the time, sometimes it’s less than at other times and sometimes it’s not there at all. We need to become aware of when it changes and ask why now and not then. Third, we need to recognize that full health is possible and take small steps towards that healthy goal rather than accept helplessness. Fourth, while we are doing each of these we should recognize that we are not our diseases, they don’t define us and they shouldn’t limit our potential.

You don’t have to rely on Congress to enjoy a healthier and more fulfilling life, your own personal reform is a lot closer than you might think.