Happiness And Health

Studies show that happy people — or, at least, people who self-identify as happy — are likely to live longer.  So, does that mean being happy is the key to living to a ripe old age?

lrp2247Scientists now say . . . not so fast.  They found that although the happy people in the studied population of a million women were less likely to die during the ten-year study period than people who described themselves as unhappy, when researchers looked into the health of those groups they found that happy people also tended to be objectively healthier than the sad contingent — and healthier people by definition are likely to live longer.  In short, happiness might be correlated with longevity, but being happy, by itself, doesn’t cause long life. The study bluntly concluded:  “Our large prospective study shows no robust evidence that happiness itself reduces cardiac, cancer, or overall mortality.”

No surprise there, really.  Only the most ardent happiness advocate might think that the simple act of being happy could, say, prevent the formation and spread of cancerous cells in your body or allow you to escape a genetic predisposition to heart attack.  But that obvious conclusion still begs a significant question — why does the correlation exist in the first place?  Why do happy people tend to be healthier than unhappy people?

I think the answer is clear — and the key is not happiness, but the state of unhappiness.  If you are in pain or feeling sick or otherwise are suffering from poor health, it’s difficult to maintain a happy attitude.  On the flip side, if you’re down in the dumps, it’s harder to get motivated to do the things that help to keep you healthy, like getting a decent amount of exercise and watching your diet and your weight.  How many unhappy people overeat to compensate for their depression, for example, and end up dealing with obesity, the health problems associated with it, and the poor self-image issues that tend to accompany it?

Happiness therefore might not be the cause of good health, but unhappiness and poor health seem to be part of a cycle, with one reinforcing and contributing to the other.  Happiness therefore might not be the cause of a long life, strictly speaking, but if you can develop and keep a positive attitude it sure seems to help.

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Lives (And Deaths) Of Quiet Desperation

After years of increasing longevity, studies are showing that the death rate is rising, but only for one group — white Americans between the ages of 45 and 54.  The divergence in the trend lines may be inexplicable, but it is unmistakable.  While death rates are falling in other first-world countries, and for African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States, they are rising for middle-aged whites.

The circumstances of the deaths all point to mental health issues as an underlying cause for the anomaly.  As the Wall Street Journal reports, between 1999 and 2013 deaths from suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, and chronic liver disease all increased for that population demographic, even as the incidence of other common causes for mortality, such as lung cancer, declined.  The studies also show that the increase in the mental health-related causes of death is particularly notable among middle-aged whites with no more than a high school education, although increases also were observed among better-educated segments of the population, too.

The experts aren’t sure why the mortality trend is affecting this particular group.  Some point to increases in mental health issues among white Americans and musculoskeletal problems that have left people in chronic pain — and therefore ripe for self-medication through alcohol or addiction to powerful painkillers — but those don’t seem like reasons that should target one demographic group to the exclusion of others, or for that matter should affect Americans but not Germans, British, or Canadians.

Other experts say that “economic stress” is the culprit, and that many Americans have reached middle age only to find that they are less well off than their parents, when the “American Dream” we heard about growing up is supposed to result in increases in wealth and happiness from generation to generation.  That rationale might explain why Americans are being affected as opposed to those in other countries — but is belief in the “American Dream” really so profoundly different among different demographic groups that it would explain the different death rates?

In Walden, Henry D. Thoreau wrote:  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  Many of us know people who have succumbed to that desperation, but we aren’t sure precisely why.  We don’t know why they are prone to addiction, or depression, or suicidal thoughts when others in similar circumstances manage to deal with their problems and forge ahead — but these studies indicate that their stories are sufficiently commonplace to create a clear and disturbing statistical trend.

Our grandparents and parents would scoff at the idea that the “American Dream” was a bad thing.  Could it be that its aspirational notions have created expectations that, if unrealized, produce disappointment so crushing that it cannot be borne?  I’m skeptical of that conclusion, but I nevertheless wonder why so many people apparently are so desperately unhappy about their lives, and what we can do to change that trend.

Laugh, And Live Long — Maybe

Yesterday I noticed another news story about another study about longevity.  This one says that people with a sense of humor and a positive outlook live longer.

That sounds good, I thought.  I like to think I have a good sense of humor, I enjoy a hearty laugh as much as the next person, and I have a positive outlook about everything except my sports teams, politicians, and the outlook for the world at large.  Maybe I’ll live longer!

But then I started to think about how many of these longevity studies are released every year.  I think it’s because the Baby Boomers are growing older, and researchers vying for government funding figure that aging saps like me are suckers for reading about such studies in hopes of finding the Fountain of Youth.

Each longevity study evaluates some different characteristic, habit, practice, or genetic trait.  It makes things so confusing!

How do we know whether longevity is really tied to sense of humor, or to so many minutes a day of vigorous walking, or to drinking regular glasses of wine, or to avoiding cyclamates and red dye no. 2 — among thousands of things that have been the subject of such studies?  How can I precisely align my diet, exercise regimen, and daily activities to maximize my chances?

I don’t understand how, from a scientific standpoint, you can possibly screen out the influence of all other factors and determine that one activity, item of consumption, or quality is the crucial attribute that puts you over the top.  In fact, I think human beings are such complex organisms, and our daily lives involve interaction with so many different things, that even trying to figure out what causes long life is an exercise in futility.

I think that means that if you like to laugh, laugh — just don’t expect that it’s going to be the key that unlocks the door to some day being recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as Earth’s oldest human.

Gee, I guess maybe my outlook isn’t so positive after all.

Guzzle Coffee, Live Longer

Here’s news that will warm the already rapidly beating hearts of coffee lovers — drinking a lot of that black brew apparently makes you live longer.

A large study of more than 400,000 men and women by the National Cancer Institute found a correlation between significant coffee drinking and life span.  Men and women who drink two to three cups of coffee a day were at a significantly lower risk of dying from heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, and diabetes than men and women who drink no coffee.  These coffee hounds therefore have an increased chance of outliving their wussy, coffee-abstaining counterparts.

The researchers don’t know why coffee might have positive health effects; further studies will be done on that score.  Although the scientists haven’t figured out the cause-and-effect issues, this coffee fan has some suggestions.  Coffee decreases your risk of heart disease and stroke because it gets your heart pumping and your blood coursing, leading to a strong and well-exercised heart and blood vessels free of clotting debris.  It has a positive effect on respiratory systems because coffee aficionados like to breathe deep the heady aroma of their brew.  It lessens the likelihood of diabetes because coffee drinkers, charged with caffeine surging through their systems, will get up and move around to avoid the jitters and that exercise helps to keep their weight down.  (That is, unless they are drinking one of those sugary whipped cream concoctions from the neighborhood coffee house.)

Time for another cup!

15 Minutes A Day

The Lancet has published a study about the effect of exercise on longevity.  The results should embarrass every couch potato in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

The article, based on a study of a Taiwanese population, concludes that getting a mere 15 minutes of exercise a day results, on average, in an additional three years of life.  Every additional 15 minutes of exercise beyond that baseline has an appreciable positive effect on mortality.   In short, minimal effort — and let’s face it, 15 minutes of moderate activity exercise a day is pretty darned minimal — will produce meaningful results, and exercise beyond that minimum will enhance those effects.

So why don’t more people get off their butts and walk, or take the stairs instead of the elevator at work?  Instead, we’ve got people who, like Homer Simpson in the classic Simpsons episode, are striving toward a goal of being the fattest person ever to give birth or to tip the scales at more than 1000 pounds.  It’s pretty pathetic when you think about it.