You Are What You Think
The inside-your-head interaction of brain and body, beyond the social nature of disability and even beyond medicine alone, is something I’ve been intrigued with since first becoming paralyzed. I am pretty sure that my own state of mind at the time (including a super high stress level) had something to do with my contracting the neuroimmune disorder, transverse myelitis (TM), but there is absolutely no science to back this up and I certainly don’t blame myself for this erratic misfortune. But there is science – hard, evidence-based, peer-reviewed scientific research – that shows that psychological and experiential factors can have a huge impact on both the quality and the length of your life. This is not idle speculation, like my own thoughts. This is medicine, you might say, beyond prescription medications and trips to the doctor.
To understand this dynamic more fully, I turn to an authority much greater than myself, Dr. Adam Kaplin, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Dr. Kaplin has long studied the effects of disorders like MS and TM on brain function and personal psychology, and vice-versa. It was from him that I first learned the concept of “Purpose In Life” (or PIL) as a factor in physical health. I’ve written about this before, but now actually know what I’m talking about, or sort of. As one study defines this simple but profound idea, it is “a psychological construct that refers to the tendency of derive meaning from life’s experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness that guides behavior.” That’s a little wordy, as most scientific explanations are, but you get the idea. PIL is not a hobby or obsession or time-filler like doing crossword puzzles or watching every episode of “Seinfeld.” It is, largely, the way you conduct or don’t conduct your life.
Dr. Kaplan says this view of things can be largely credited to a man named Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who became a renowned neurologist, psychiatrist, and thinker. Dr. Frankl defined three main factors in finding worth in life. One is simply the belief that there is meaning in existence, that the world is not ipso facto a meaningless, absurd, and useless business. Two is the exercise of personal choice to create meaning in your own life, and three is the will to pursue meaning in future challenges, good or bad. If you believe that the universe is just a mass of random chemical compounds and you are a temporary speck of protoplasm in its midst, then you and Dr. Frankl are probably not on the same page.
Okay, enough of the brainy stuff. What real difference does this so-called Purpose In Life have on your health? A lot. In fact, a whole lot. I’ll just refer to one classic study entitled “Effect of a Purpose In Life on Risk of Incident Alzheimer Disease and Mild Cognitive Impairment in Community-Dwelling Older Persons.” Again, minus the medical gobbledygook, these researchers from Rush University Medical Center followed a group of 951 older citizens for seven years to see who developed Alzheimer’s and who didn’t as measured against a scale of psychological well-being. After factoring out such variables as age, sex, and education, they found that people with a strong purpose in their lives were 2.4 times less likely to contract Alzheimer’s than those with a weak PIL. Oh, and also a slower rate of cognitive decline. That’s a big difference. That’s a life-altering difference.
The term Dr. Kaplin uses to explain this effect is “neuroprotective.” Finding meaning and purpose in life -- essentially, thoughts that guide actions -- can protect the brain from the destructive biochemical process that induces Alzheimer’s. He also points to research that shows that people with a high PIL rating are up to 50% less likely to get heart attacks or stroke.
There are studies yet to be done that will hopefully deal specifically with how a solid life purpose can affect the health of people with paralysis. A while back I mentioned a finding that people with SCI have a premature mortality rate relative to the non-SCI community. The question is, why? It seems that medical progress has largely leveled the playing field of longevity. My own hunch – more idle speculation – is those who adhere to Dr. Frankl’s quest for meaning in their lives will be found to live longer, richer lives.
Dr. Kaplin wants to take this proposition a step further. If you buy into the belief that this purpose business is a boon to mental and physical health, how do you convince someone else of that, especially someone stricken with TM, MS, and paralysis in general? Are there methods of interaction, even self-interaction, that can help jumpstart this process? Most of us who live with paralysis go through dark, hopeless periods, especially early on, and have to stumble our way out of them. Knowing how you might foster a new purpose, especially if you are newly paralyzed, might short-circuit this agony of confusion and despair. Heck, it might even save a few lives.
To be continued...
© 2014 Allen Rucker |
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The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life