Health advancements in Western civilization in the modern era are beyond amazing. Human life expectancy was about 40 years in 1870 and today approaches 80. In Western nations, the average person can expect to live roughly twice as long as he or she would have 130 years ago.
We can credit sophisticated medical treatments for doing much to extend life and improve health. Surgery often provides a new lease on life, correcting a life-threatening condition or dramatically enhancing the quality of life. Body parts can sometimes be replaced, and new drugs often knock out infections.
Most of the world's health-care dollars are spent in trying to heal existing diseases. If we are to live even healthier and longer lives, we must focus more on prevention. Otherwise old age will mean more time for illness because of the general decline in the body's immunity as we age. We can offset this decline by practicing fundamental health principles in such matters as diet, exercise and how we handle our anxieties.
There is solid evidence of the effectiveness of basic health practices in extending and enhancing the quality of life. Note how behavioral changes have impacted fatalities from heart disease: "A major study showing that the mortality rate from heart disease has been dropping since 1963 also found that life-style changes in diet and smoking habits —rather than new medical treatments—accounted for over half of the decline" (The Wellness Encyclopedia, 1991, p. 1).
Let's consider seven important health principles. Practicing these will help you live a longer and healthier life. These principles are backed by extensive research in the health-care field and by the Bible. As we go through these principles, remember that God wants us to live productive, healthy and useful lives (John 10:10; 1 Timothy 4:8).
You are what you eat
Eating is one of our most pleasurable activities, and God intended it to be so. His creation is filled with a wonderful variety of tasty, nourishing, healthful foods. However, the same appetites that add to life's pleasure can, if misused, make us ill. Benjamin Franklin observed that "we should eat to live and not live to eat." Of all health practices and habits, diet is the area where we can help ourselves the most.
Historically, humanity's dietary problems have often consisted of a general condition of malnutrition and hunger because of poverty. In the modern Western world, this is no longer a major problem. A growing problem, however, is the increasing consumption of junk food as a regular part of our diet. This is the result of eating out more often and serving ready-made packaged foods at home. In the United States "roughly half a family's food budget now goes on food eaten out; and 45 percent of dinners eaten at home include not a single home-made item" (The Economist, Dec. 20, 1997).
Many other nations are following America's lead in gorging on such foods. Use of prepared foods gives us less control over what we eat, and many such foods are laden with fat and salt. Eating habits based on these foods "can bring with them heart disease, strokes and cancer, the so-called diseases of affluence that accompany the adoption of high-fat, low-exercise 'Western lifestyles'" (Newsweek, June 1, 1998).
Such dietary practices also cause weight problems. "The most recent official figures, from the National Centre for Health Statistics, show that more than half of all Americans are now overweight . . . [and] most countries are following suit. The rate of obesity in Britain has more than doubled since 1980" (The Economist, Dec. 20, 1997). A survey taken in Britain "shows that one-third of those aged 16-24 were overweight or obese" (The Independent, December 15, 1998).
Overweight is a major contributor to serious health conditions. "A 16-year study conducted on 115,000 nurses, published in the September 14, 1995, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, concluded that even a moderate weight gain—as little as 18 pounds—put otherwise-healthy women at increased risk for heart disease, cardiovascular death, and cancer" (Steven Jonas, M.D., and Linda Konner, Just the Weigh You Are, 1997, p. 18).
Overweight men are at risk as well. "Men who are 30 percent overweight have a 70 percent higher risk of developing coronary heart disease than those at their recommended weight level" (The Wellness Encyclopedia, p. 23). Overweight people are also more likely to suffer hypertension (high blood pressure).
Diet and cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, about one third of the 500,000 cancer-related deaths in the United States each year are because of dietary factors. High-fat diets have been linked with an elevation of cancer of the colon, rectum, prostate, endometrium and even the lungs. High levels of meat consumption may bring susceptibility to colon cancer. "The disease is some ten times more common in meat-eating, industrialized societies than in the less well-stuffed peoples who depend for sustenance on plant foods high in fiber" (Sherwin Nuland, How We Live, 1997, p. 132).
Consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains and beans can reduce the risk of cancer. These foods are all rich in fiber and low in fat. They also contain many beneficial vitamins and minerals.
A few years ago the National Cancer Institute (NCI) instituted a "five-a-day program." The idea was to exhort everyone to eat a combination of at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. The NCI believes that if people make this simple change in their dietary habits, the number of new cancer cases will be dramatically reduced.
The evidence for the benefits of eating a lot of fruits and vegetables is overwhelming. "Scientists argue about many issues, but everybody agrees that increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables can help prevent heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases" (University of California at Berkeley Wellness Letter, February 1995).
A healthy diet doesn't have to be bland. Notice the following description of a balanced, healthful diet: "Vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes are preferred foods, since they are typically low in fat and rich in complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. But meats, poultry, fish, and dairy products also contain a wealth of nutrients. Some of these foods are high in fat, and so should be consumed in moderation. But there is no reason to give them up entirely" (Sheldon Margen, The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition, 1992, p. 9).
The dietary practices reflected in the Bible have much in common with this recommendation. "The ordinary food of the average Hebrew of Bible times was bread, olives, oil, buttermilk and cheese from their flocks; fruits and vegetables from their orchards and gardens; and meat on rare occasions" (Fred Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, 1987, p. 43).
The Bible Almanac makes a similar observation. "Vegetable products formed a major portion of the diet . . . When meat was used, it was often for the purpose of serving strangers or honored guests. Grains were an important part of the diet . . . Fruits and fish were a favorite part of the diet" (Packer, Tenney and White, editors, 1980, p. 465).
The diet of Bible times was probably a factor in longevity. In David's time, it seems to have been common for adults to reach 70 years of age (Psalm 90:10). Many lived far longer. Modern life expectancy didn't reach 70 until about 1955.
The Bible also gives detailed lists of what animals, birds and fish are appropriate or inappropriate for human consumption (Leviticus 11:1-30; Deuteronomy 14:3-20). Studies have linked various health problems to consumption of some of the prohibited items. The avoidance of eating some of the creatures on the list is clearly a matter of common sense. (To learn more, be sure to read our booklet What Does the Bible Teach About Clean and Unclean Meats?)
Exercise for your health
"Physical training is of some value" (1 Timothy 4:8, NIV). The apostle Paul wrote these words nearly 2,000 years ago. His observation is consistently backed up by medical research and modern experience. The results of a study of 10,000 men and 3,000 women were published in The Journal of the American Medical Association. It stated: "There is solid evidence that physically active people live longer . . . Fitness helped overcome all causes of mortality, including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease" (Kenneth Cooper, M.D., It's Better to Believe, 1995, p. 211).
The surgeon general of the United States released a report that stated that "regular physical activity reduces the risk for developing or dying from coronary heart disease, noninsulin-dependent diabetes, hypertension, and colon cancer; reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression; contributes to the development and maintenance of healthier bones, muscles, and joints and helps control weight" (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, July 12, 1996, p. 591).
Exercise need not be overly taxing to be beneficial. Even moderate physical activity, such as working in the yard or gardening, promotes health and fitness.
Until the modern era most people exercised as part of their normal routine. Most occupations involved considerable physical activity. Families often grew much of their own food. In comparison, most jobs today are sedentary, and we buy most of our food at the supermarket.
Between 1985 and 1990 America saw a 15 per-cent decline in exercise among people in their 20s. The decline among other age groups was about half this (Wellness Letter, July 1995). "One American in four admits to being completely sedentary, and another 40 percent rarely exercise" (The Economist, Dec. 20, 1997).
Given the frantic pace and structure of modern life, it is difficult to obtain sufficient exercise without a regular program. The younger you are when you begin a regular exercise program the better, but it is never too late. A recent study confirms that "much of the functional losses that set in between the ages of 30 and 70 are . . . attributable to lack of exercise" (Wellness Letter, May 1995). One way we deteriorate as we age is in decreased effectiveness of heart and lungs. Beginning even a moderate exercise program will help slow or even reverse this deterioration.
Healthy exercise comes in many forms. Running, cycling, swimming and working out at health clubs or on home exercise machines are all popular. Although certain costs are connected with all of these, exercise need not be expensive.
Inexpensive and convenient
Probably the least expensive and most convenient way for many people to exercise is to walk. The primary expense is a decent pair of shoes. Brisk walking produces cardiovascular function, increases flexibility and leads to a longer life. "A long-term study of thousands of Harvard alumni has suggested that a regimen of walking (an average of nine miles a week) can significantly prolong life" (The Wellness Encyclopedia, p. 252).
For older people and those suffering from partially debilitating infirmities, even slow walking brings benefits. There is also some indication that, because walking is a weight-bearing exercise, it may help prevent osteoporosis in postmenopausal women.
An additional benefit of exercise—especially if combined with eating better—is weight loss. But even if you do not lose significant weight, don't quit exercising. It could be that you are replacing fat with muscle, which is heavier than fat. And in some cases the tendency to be heavier than what is considered normal is partially a function of genetics. Such people still benefit from a fitness program.
"Current research supports the notion that, even if you remain overweight, working out and becoming fit can help you live longer. In one study done at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, in Dallas, more than 25,000 obese men were given an initial health exam that included a treadmill test and a body-fat assessment. Eight years later, they were retested, and the men who were moderately fit or very fit had a 70 percent lower mortality rate than unfit men . . . Mortality rates, it was concluded, were more influenced by the men's fitness levels than by their weight" (Jonas and Konner, p. 41).
Time to recharge
Sufficient sleep is essential to good health. Prolonged sleep loss can bring many problems. Laboratory experiments with rats and dogs have demonstrated that animals will die if denied sleep for too long. Although we can endure short-term sleep loss with no serious side effects, extensive or prolonged sleep deprivation brings physical, mental and psychological difficulties.
Widespread lack of sufficient sleep is a relatively recent phenomenon. Late in the 19th century Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb, enabling us to virtually turn night into day and increasing our potential for productive hours. But his wonderful invention brought both positive and negative consequences. Many people view sleep as unproductive down time. "By some estimates, we're sleeping as much as an hour and a half less per night than we did at the turn of the century" (Newsweek, Jan. 12, 1998).
An indicator that many struggle with sleep is that in 1977 there were three certified sleep clinics in America and by 1997 the number had grown to 337. Sleep loss can be disastrous. The Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Chernobyl explosion, the Three Mile Island incident and the Challenger space-shuttle disaster have all been blamed in part on sleepy personnel. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that sleepy drivers cause more than 100,000 accidents every year, resulting in at least 1,500 deaths. A drowsy driver will make mistakes in judgment, and a driver who falls asleep at the wheel is a threat to himself and everyone else nearby.
Chronic sleep loss reduces the body's resistance to infection. Studies have shown that, in general, when healthy people miss sleep their bodies produce fewer cells to fight off infection. "Experiments on volunteers have ascertained that two or three days of sleep deprivation will produce significant reductions in various aspects of immune function" (Paul Martin, M.D., The Healing Mind, 1997, p. 70).
Difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep is called insomnia. In America, "according to several national surveys, between 15 and 25 percent of the adult population complain about insomnia" (The Wellness Encyclopedia, p. 421).
Several simple practices are available through which we can enhance our ability to get sound, restful sleep. Regular physical exercise is one. Many sedentary occupations produce intense mental strain. Physical exercise helps expend this pent-up tension, bringing about natural fatigue that prepares the body for sleep.
It is best, however, to refrain from strenuous exercise close to bedtime. Curbing your intake of stimulants also helps bring better sleep. This includes reduction of caffeine and total abstention from it in the latter part of the day. Tobacco is a problem because nicotine is a stimulant, speeding up the metabolic process. Heavy smokers sleep more lightly and less restfully (ibid., p. 422).
If you work late at night and then go to bed expecting to sleep, you may experience frustration. Try ceasing your work or intense mental activity about an hour before bedtime and do something relaxing. Other helpful habits include keeping regular hours for going to bed and getting up. A warm bath before bedtime can help induce sleep too.
Scientists still puzzle over exactly why sleep is necessary, but they know it is. When we sleep, our bodies release a growth hormone that some researchers believe is used to renew worn-out tissue.
Sleep helps restore our bodies and minds. To feel good and function effectively, we must have sufficient sleep. Without it we lose our ability to concentrate and make complex decisions. Don't rob yourself of the sleep and rest your body and mind need.
Take care to avoid injury
Most of the health hazards we encounter have a gradual effect upon us. Accidents are an exception. You can be diligent and conscientious in caring for your body, but if you slip up in a careless moment your health can be irreparably damaged in a split second in a single tragic accident.
Driving or riding in a car may be the most dangerous thing most people do. Millions are injured and tens of thousands die every year. In 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 43,443 people were killed and 2.7 million injured in the United States alone.
Most accidents could be prevented with caution and safe driving habits. "If you are a typical low-risk driver, you are more than 1,000 times less likely to die in a car crash than a high-risk driver" (Wellness Letter, April 1990).
Seat belts and airbags save many from severe injury and loss of life. They would save more if everyone used them. In the United States "sixty-nine percent of adults in front seats buckle up nationwide, one of the lowest rates of any developed country. Australia, Canada and most European countries have belt use rates of more than 90 percent" (Portland Oregonian, Nov. 19, 1998).
In America "drivers who are least likely to wear seat belts are actually the ones who need them most; they tend to be males under 35 . . . and have more crashes and driving violations" (Wellness Letter, August 1995).
When adults don't use seat belts, they endanger children too. Many careless adults do not make sure the children in their care are adequately restrained. Children, following their parents' example, fail to use seat belts too. As a result, of the 2,087 children killed in U.S. automobile crashes in 1997, "six out of 10 of them were not secured in seat belts or child seats. The same held for the more than 100,000 children who suffered injuries requiring medical attention" (Portland Oregonian, Nov. 19, 1998).
Though the injuries are not generally as serious, more people are injured at home than in traffic accidents. In America "household accidents injure more people each year than car and workplace accidents combined" (Parade, Feb. 15, 1998). It is estimated that 90 percent of these accidents could be prevented. Major sources of home accidents are power lawn equipment and falls, particularly from ladders.
Children in particular are prone to accidents. Common causes of childhood injury around the house are poisonings, drownings, falls, accidental shootings, fires and burns. Parents should realize that the leading cause of drowning of children less than one year old is in buckets, bathtubs and toilets.
Accidents with toys are common. Many children visit emergency rooms every year after being injured with baseball bats. Younger children, who have not developed fine muscle control, are susceptible to bicycle injuries, particularly if not wearing a helmet. Most bicyclists' injuries involve the head, and three of four cyclists who die in crashes die of head injuries (Wellness Encyclopedia, p. 124).
Young children must have close supervision to avoid injury, but it is impossible to supervise them every minute. The best long-term protection you can give children is to instill safety habits in them as they mature.
A complete personal health-care program will include guarding against accidental injury. Wise people are wary of dangers, while the careless stumble into trouble. "A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it" (Proverbs 22:3, NIV).
It is outside the scope of this publication to address illegal-drug usage at length. Generally, illegal substances are declared to be so because of their obvious destructive effects upon society. Anyone who is using an illegal substance should immediately cease, entering a treatment program if necessary.
Although legal, and one of the most profitable of cash crops, tobacco probably causes more damage to the health of its users than any other substance. "The global proliferation of cigarettes leads to an estimated 3 million deaths a year . . . By 2020, the number is estimated by the World Health Organization, to reach 10 million a year" (Carl Sagan, Billions& Billions, 1997, p. 205).
The number of premature deaths from tobacco use is staggering in comparison to other causes of premature death. "Take a random sample of a thousand young men who smoke; on the basis of actuarial data it can confidently be predicted that one of these young men will eventually be murdered, six will be killed on the roads and two hundred and fifty will die prematurely from the effects of smoking" (Martin, p. 59).
Tobacco is a deadly substance. Its smoke "contains more than 4,000 chemicals including trace amounts of such known poisons as cyanide, arsenic, and formaldehyde. There are 43 known cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens) in tobacco smoke" (Mayo Clinic Family Health Book, 1996, p. 317).
Tobacco users raise their susceptibility to numerous diseases, including a variety of cancers, cardiovascular ailments, sexual dysfunction and lung diseases, including emphysema. "Each year smoking kills more than 400,000 Americans, more than died in battle in World War II and the Vietnam war combined" (ibid., p. 316).
Smoking not only shortens life, but its detrimental effects often deprive smokers of the opportunity to live an active life to the full. This is ironic because cigarette advertising typically associates smoking with vigorous outdoor activities. Smokers are shown skiing, hiking, swimming, playing ball games and the like. The reality is that continued tobacco use damages the heart and lungs, eventually reducing the smoker's activities and bringing on premature aging.
The smoker's body looks older too, especially in facial appearance. "Compared to nonsmokers, smokers are more likely to appear at least five years older than their stated age" (Wellness Letter, April 1994). The term "smoker's face" was coined a few years ago to refer to certain physical features that accompany smoking. These include increased wrinkling, facial discoloration, stained teeth and a tendency toward gauntness. All of these make smokers appear older than they are.
Lung cancer at one time was largely a man's disease because of the larger proportion of male smokers compared with females. The percentage of adult American males who smoke has declined from half in 1965 to less than a third today (Mayo Clinic Family Health Book, p. 316). Although this is good news, it is offset by the fact that now almost as many women smoke as men. As a result more American women die from lung cancer than from breast cancer. Cigarette smokers are 10 times more likely to die of lung cancer than nonsmokers (ibid., p. 318).
A similar trend has developed in Britain. "Lung cancer will fall sharply among men over the next two decades but double among women. This may be because women took up smoking on a large scale some 20 to 30 years after men, who are giving up at a faster rate" (Daily Mail, June 25, 1997).
Smoking enormously increases the risk factor for numerous cancers, including kidney and bladder. Professor Richard Peto of Oxford, England, who has spent his life investigating the causes of cancer, says: "Smokers inhale carcinogens, which spread through their body. The whole body is bathed in carcinogenic solvents—they have carcinogenic urine. This affects the kidney and bladder" (Sunday Times Magazine, June 1, 1997). Smoking among the young is a matter of grave concern in Britain . "A staggering 43 per cent of young men and 42 per cent of young women are smoking by the age of 20" (The Mirror, Dec. 15, 1998).
Reducing or eliminating tobacco use is the only proven way to reduce the health hazards of smoking. If you are a smoker, you should quit. Those who don't smoke should never start. Smoking is a losing gamble, and you are not the only one who will suffer from the habit. Secondhand smoke puts others at risk and increases the chance of respiratory disease in children who are exposed.
Some think they are better off switching to cigars, pipes or smokeless tobacco. Although these products may lower the amount of toxins and carcinogens taken into the body through tobacco use, they do not eliminate the health risks. Any form and amount of tobacco use is ultimately harmful to our bodies.
One item of good news related to tobacco use is that when you quit your body will begin to recover. For example, even long-term smokers can reduce their risk of stroke to the same level as nonsmokers within five years (Wellness Letter, September 1988). By the end of five years your risk of heart attack will be almost the same as that of lifetime nonsmokers. Over several years the risk of various types of cancer decreases significantly as your body slowly repairs the damage caused by smoking (Mayo Clinic Family Health Book, p. 324).
From a biblical standpoint, smoking is wrong because God tells us we should not inflict harm on the bodies He gave us. We are told, "Honor God with your body" (1 Corinthians 6:20, NIV). To mistreat our bodies by subjecting them to the harmful effects of tobacco violates this command.
God also tells us, in the first of the Ten Commandments, that we are to have no other gods before Him (Exodus 20:3). We are to let nothing come between us and Him to adversely affect that relationship. When we allow ourselves to become addicted to tobacco (or any other substance), we have become enslaved (Romans 6:16) to a harmful, wasteful, destructive habit that hinders us from wholeheartedly serving Him (Matthew 4:10).
Alcohol use and abuse
Unlike smoking, alcohol is not a health hazard if consumed in moderation. Studies have even shown that consumption of alcohol in moderation can be beneficial, to the arteries of the heart in particular. However, excessive drinking damages the muscle of the heart wall. Some researchers, perhaps because of the tendency of many to drink too much, question whether the benefits of even moderate usage outweigh the risks.
Some people should not drink at all. Most alcoholic-treatment programs advise that those who have become addicted should practice complete abstinence. The United States surgeon general's office has also advised abstention to all women who are pregnant or are considering pregnancy.
In a 1998 U.S. Gallup Poll 77 percent of respondents indicated they drink some alcohol. Sadly, many descend into alcohol abuse. "Alcohol is the third-largest killer in the United States, ranking behind heart disease and cancer. If traffic fatalities and death certificate diagnoses related to alcoholic use were included in the statistics, alcoholism would be recognized as our nation's number one killer" (p. 326).
Britain has a growing problem with alcohol abuse. "Compared with 1950 . . . average annual alcohol consumption has more than doubled and so has fully fledged alcoholism. Excessive drinking is now the norm, not the exception" (The Express, July 13, 1998). "It has been estimated that as much as one in 20 is an alcoholic" (ibid., March 21, 1997).
Alcohol abuse can damage the brain, nerves, liver, pancreas and cardiovascular system. Excessive drinking is also associated with cancer. "After cardiovascular disease, cancer is the next leading cause of death among alcoholics" (Mayo Clinic Family Health Book, p. 329).
The Bible does not forbid the use of alcoholic beverages. It presents wine as a source of pleasure (Psalm 104:15; Ecclesiastes 9:7) and notes its benefits when used appropriately (1 Timothy 5:23). Wine was commonly served at weddings in biblical culture, and when Jesus was present at a wedding He miraculously replenished the supply when it was exhausted (John 2:1-10).
However, the Bible does give strong warnings about the abuse of alcohol (Proverbs 20:1; Proverbs 23:1; Ephesians 5:18). No drunkard will be allowed in the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:10). Abuse of alcohol is a threat to your spiritual and physical health.
The power of a positive outlook
The idea that positive thoughts and emotions help promote physical health and that negative ones tear it down was long a tenet of folk wisdom. However, the concept fell out of favor after scientific experimentation in the 19th century established a clear connection between microbial agents and infectious diseases. The idea that one's state of mind could affect bodily health was more or less discarded. In the last few decades, however, some in the medical community have taken a closer look and revived this ancient wisdom.
Medical researchers in the 1950s noticed that many cardiac patients shared personality traits. In particular they tended to be competitive, impatient and always in a hurry. From such observations researchers coined the term "type A personality."
Those possessing this personality type were thought to be prone to coronary disease. Later research resulted in a refinement of the type-A theory. "Current studies . . . suggest that certain toxic components of the type A personality, such as hostility and cynicism, are the real risk factors for heart disease, rather than the more general type A behavior such as competitiveness and time-urgency" (Newsweek, Feb. 17, 1997).
Studies in the last few years have yielded evidence that negative emotions in general often affect not only the heart but many other aspects of bodily health. Stress and negative emotions, such as anxiety and depression, can influence our health, increasing our susceptibility to afflictions as minor as colds and as major as cancer.
Notes the Harvard Men's Health Watch: "More than a dozen investigations have asked if stress increases susceptibility to the common cold; all have concluded that it does" (January 1999).
Solid evidence points to emotional factors influencing vulnerability to cancer as well as the ability to recover from it. Researchers have identified what they believe is a cancer-prone, or type-C, personality. "There is . . . a reasonable consensus that certain characteristics are key components of Type C" (Martin, p. 223).
The components identified include bottling up emotions—especially anger, inability to forgive and a hopeless outlook toward life. God created our bodies with a marvelous immune system that constantly fights against invasion from bacterial and viral agents as well as against cancerous cells produced in our bodies. Stress and negative emotions seem to suppress the ability of the body's immune system to respond to these threats, making us more vulnerable to disease.
Positive emotions boost health
If negative emotions hinder the body's immunity, can we expect positive emotions to provide a boost? Yes, we can! Some 3,000 years ago God inspired this observation to be recorded for us: "A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones" (Proverbs 17:22).
The truth of these words is borne out by many scientific studies. Positive emotions assist in the prevention of illness and, if one does become ill, they can help speed recovery. "Scientists have investigated the notion and found compelling evidence to suggest that social environment and mental attitude can modify our chances of surviving cancer" (Martin, p. 230).
Researchers in a University of London study assessed women's psychological response to breast cancer. A follow-up study after five years showed that those who displayed an initial fighting response were more likely to survive. A survey of the same women conducted 15 years later revealed that "those who had originally displayed a fighting spirit or denial continued to fare better: 45 per cent of them were still alive, and free from cancer, as against 17 per cent of the women who had reacted initially with stoic acceptance, helplessness or anxious preoccupation" (ibid.).
The effect of mental stress on health appears to be illustrated in developments in the former Soviet Union in recent years. "Between 1990 and 1994 . . . life expect-ancy for Russian men and women declined dramatically from 63.8 and 74.4 years to 57.7 and 71.2 years, respectively." Authorities cite many factors, "including economic and social instability, high rates of tobacco and alcohol consumption, poor nutrition [and] depression" (The Journal of the American Medical Association, March 11, 1998).
We often refer to a fighting response to illness as the will to live. This will can be strengthened by a number of factors. One of the keys is to believe in and be committed to a cause in life. "A raft of recent scientific studies has established that having deep personal convictions and values can do wonders for almost every aspect of your physical and emotional well-being" (Cooper, pp. 3-4). Faith in the Creator God and knowledge of His purpose provide a strong reason to live and a spark to our mental and physical health.
The ability to manage stress and maintain a healthy mental outlook is one of the essential elements of good health. As Proverbs 18:14 tells us, "The spirit of a man will sustain him in sickness, but who can bear a broken spirit?"
People who need people
Several thousand years ago God inspired a scripture to be written that says, "It is not good that man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18). Experience proves this is true. We are social beings and need connection to others. Most would agree that we need people for psychological and emotional support, but recent research shows that having good relationships with others is also important for our physical well-being. "More than twenty years' worth of scientific research has accumulated overwhelming evidence that having strong, supportive relationships is good for your mental and physical health" (Martin, p. 151).
Social isolation, on the other hand, can be a substantial risk factor for ill health. "Its impact on health and mortality is comparable to that of high blood pressure, obesity and lack of exercise. Research suggests that social factors can have as much impact on health as smoking . . . A six-year study of 17,433 Swedish men and women found that those who had the fewest social interactions and least social relationships had a mortality rate 50 per cent higher than those with rich social lives" (ibid., pp. 158-159).
It is sad that forces in society often drive people apart instead of pulling them together. Little attention is paid to the importance of relationships—or what the Bible calls love—in the pursuit of good health. Many parents who have tenderly cared for an ill child believe in a connection between health and love.
There are many ways we can apply the health principle. One is to enrich our personal relationships, to learn how to love more fully in marriage, raising children and friendships. Another way is to be involved with your neighbors. Volunteering and serving others is a proven way of benefiting yourself as well as those whom you serve.
Service to God through church involvement can provide health benefits. A study at the University of Texas Medical School examined the relationship between mortality and involvement in religious or social activities among recipients of open-heart surgery. "Those who neither had regular group participation nor drew strength and comfort from their religion were more than seven times more likely to die six months after surgery" (Dean Ornish, M.D., Love & Survival, 1997, p. 51). The nourishment of relationships, both with God and with our fellow man, is a proven health principle.
Take personal responsibility for your health
Healthy people share one of life's greatest blessings. Those who have enjoyed good health and lost it know, through painful personal experience, that they are missing out on one of life's greatest treasures. However, those who have experienced a decline in health can often regain a significant measure of their well-being by applying the principles outlined in this chapter. Those who still have good health can do a lot to preserve it by living right.
To maximize our potential to live long and well requires that we make a habit of living by proven health principles. This is the will of God: "Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you" (3 John 1:2, NIV).