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February 2001

Wellness Programs Can Save Billions In Health Care Costs

By Stephen Simac

Americans require medical attention in inverse proportion to their sense of wellness. Wellness is the buzzword of the day for health care; there is even word from Texas that George Bush is going to appoint a Wellness General instead of a Surgeon General.

The job would be to promote and encourage positive changes Americans can make in their own lives to improve their sense of well being and their health. Like any way war, it will be hell.

Americans aren't real healthy. On average it costs a quarter million from birth to death in medical costs for us. Some cost a lot more, some a lot less. Studies of the super sick and super healthy found that our personality and lifestyle have a lot to do with our health.

This sudden eagerness of doctors to hand over responsibility for the health of the patient is at least partly to reduce costs. It's based on scientific research showing that the biggest factors in medical use are psychological, social and economic, followed by lifestyle habits. Subsidizing nationwide Kevorkian Centers might lower health care costs more than changing people's minds and behavior, but would be problematic. Reforming society and our economic system could be messy, and get out of hand.

HMO-based health care focused on reducing costs in the 90's, and realized that prevention and wellness were popular and would save billions if members could somehow be convinced to think and behave healthier.

Wrestlin' Gators For Their Own Good

Decades of research show that whether a person is basically optimistic or pessimistic has a bigger effect on their lifespan than if they smoke. Whether a person considers their health excellent or poor is a better predictor for their medical use and mortality chances than any other medical markers. The closeness and number of a person's social relationships are more significant than diet and exercise habits on death rates. Rising income and education levels of people mirror their falling sickness stats.

A hostile optimist with a sense of purpose in his life will be healthier than the depressed pessimists who work for him. Hostility, depression and pessimism sicken people, but optimism, a sense of purpose and self delusion are extremely healthy.

These results have been replicated in dozens of research studies over decades with subjects ranging from hundreds of Harvard graduates, 10,000 nurses, a whole town in Pennsylvania, groups of soldiers, doctors, the elderly, children, prisoners and whoever signed up.

Stress is another one of America's biggest killers, in a lineup of serial killers. Stress is basically any change that causes a physiological reaction, with major life changes being especially stressful.

Statistically people are more likely to become ill, become injured or die from all causes after extended periods of heavy stress. The most stressful jobs are ones that place high demands on the worker, but give them little decision making ability or satisfaction.

Practicing stress reduction techniques like regular exercise, orgasms, sitting and breathing instead of smoking, stretching and deep relaxation are needed to stay healthy in a high stress society. Higher levels of optimism, social contacts and a little self-denial also alleviate the effects of stress.

Shut Up, Little Man!

Americans have heard and ignored the well known lifestyle effects on health for decades, you know like getting regular exercise, eating a moderately fatty diet, not smoking tobacco, and wearing a seat belt. We wear seatbelts more often, but Americans keep getting fatter and fatter. Prisoners of their jeans.

Obesity is a killer, but feeling that you have some control over your life is more important to a sense of wellbeing than your weight. It's okay to feel optimistic even if you know damn well the worlds going to hell. You're guaranteed front row seats.

The only things we may really have control over are the voices in our head. Practice and psychedelics make it possible to derail our habitual belief systems. The patterns we think in, the voices and images in our mind weave together our personality, a loom that rarely pauses if you've ever stopped to sit and watch it for a spell.

It's difficult to watch the weaving without getting tangled up. These voices and worldview appear to be our self, our ego, our unique personality. This self is so treasured that we protect it at all costs. We easily distort and ignore any reality that threatens what we believe our self to be. It's not easy to change our minds, and most people see no point in it.

It's probably futile for a pessimist to try to become an optimist; it might not even be healthy. That's why most wellness programs concentrate on preaching regular exercise, healthier diets and practicing stress reduction instead of changing your mind. Who knows, a pessimist might be safer taking up regular walking or bicycling than an optimist assuming drivers see them.

The thought that our minds are either killing us or healing us at any moment might encourage Americans to take some responsibility for their health instead of feeling like victims or blaming scapegoats. More likely the Wellness General will have a war on his hands.

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