By Marion K. Jacobs, Ph.D
We had to keep adding chairs to accommodate all the people who showed up at the Woman’s Club last Thursday night to hear UC Irvine Prof. Roger Walsh, MD, Ph.D, talk on “What The Research Tells Us About Optimizing Well Being.” The talk was jointly sponsored by AAUW-LB and the Woman’s Club.
A professor of psychiatry, philosophy, anthropology and religious studies, Walsh is as expert as they come on a topic near and dear to all of our hearts— what can we do to promote our well-being.
With an impressive command of the research on this complicated subject, Walsh detailed how the diseases exacting the greatest toll in our country—such as cardiovascular, obesity, diabetes and cancer—are all lifestyle related. Differences in just four lifestyle factors—smoking, alcohol intake, physical activity and diet exert such major impact that it amounts to a 14-year age effect on mortality. Research shows that therapeutic life change can ameliorate prostate cancer, reverse coronary artery disease, and be as effective as medication or psychotherapy for a number of psychological problems.
Scientists are definitely making progress in how to counter this trend. Homing in on the mechanisms—the how and why—their understanding keeps growing of why good lifestyle choices not only promote health and happiness, but actually add years to our lives. Neuroscience has even proven that healthy living actually does something once thought impossible—it increases the size of some regions of the brain. What that means is that as we age, such brain growth supports memory, energy, balance, and dementia-inhibiting executive functions like planning, judgment and decision-making.
Unfortunately, as medicine is practiced today, it does not capitalize on what we know about the role lifestyle plays in fostering personal well being, in causing pathology, or in preserving and optimizing cognitive and brain capacities.
As Dr. Walsh sees it, all of us are unwitting subjects participating in a massive, unprecedented, global lifestyle experiment. Unlike our ancestors of even a few generations ago, we increasingly live indoors, our lighting is low level and artificial, and much of what we do is in environments that are artificial and nature-free. We eat high calorie diets that are short on nutrition, get little exercise, and immerse ourselves and get shaped by a hyper real world created for us by multimedia.
From his examination of thousands of research studies, Dr. Walsh offers the top eight areas where lifestyle changes have maximum impact on both physical health and mental well-being. Some are the ones we usually hear about, like exercise, diet, and relaxation and stress management. But the Big Eight research findings also include time in nature, relationships, religious and spiritual involvement and contribution and service to others.
As I mentioned when introducing Prof. Walsh, Healthy Laguna! is a newly forming coalition of local groups and individuals who are interested in promoting healthy lifestyles in Laguna Beach. We look forward to a lively exchange of ideas, articles and personal experiences with community members via our website www.healthylaguna.com which is organized around Dr. Walsh’s eight categories. Healthy Laguna! is just in the process of getting up and running. We invite you to check us out, add your comments and help us get rolling. For further information about Healthy Laguna! you can also contact me at [email protected].
Dr. Marion Jacobs is a practicing psychologist in Laguna Beach and an adjunct professor at UCLA.