Does knowledge about the health benefits of specific lifestyle practices change behavior in alignment with those benefits? No, not necessarily.
The first challenge associated with this question pertains to the concept of knowledge itself. We live in an age of skepticism about what is true. In some cases, there are active spokespersons who deny the validity of generally accepted truth as revealed by research findings from the scientific community.
One of the most recent examples of this relates to the Covid-19 vaccines. Public health experts estimate that over 200,000 American citizens died from the virus who would be living today had they been vaccinated. This controversy rages on among warnings from epidemiologists that the new Covid variant shows the ability to evade immunity defenses and may generate a new wave of deadly infections. Covid still kills about 400 Americans per week. The reality of this dilemma is present, concrete and tangible.
Let’s review another problem. More than 30 million people in the U.S. are current cigarette smokers. That’s one in eight Americans most of whom will acknowledge that tobacco smoking is detrimental to human health. In fact, cigarette smoking kills nearly half a million people a year. It is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the nation.
What gives? Ichiro Kawachi is Professor of Social Epidemiology and Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. He had this observation: “Many public health theories assume that humans are rational, and we’re not. Our thought processes are automatic. And our behaviors are ruled by emotions, including the emotional states that advertisements create.”
Humans are social beings and allegiance to our clan or social group is frequently more important than a scientific finding reported in a news publication. In fact, Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning psychologist had this to say:“Most of us feel that we believe what we believe because we have reasons to believe it. That is, to a very large extent, an illusion. We believe what we believe mostly because we believe in what people we like and trust believe. We believe what we’re taught to believe. Reasons come later. … “The idea that we hold reasonable beliefs is an illusion.”
If someone lives in a community that rejects vaccination science, it takes courage to go against the prevailing opinion. Many people, in fact, got vaccinated in secret.
With this extended diversion on the subject of knowledge and belief, we want to emphasize that Vermont elders can both improve the quality of their life in later decades and even extend their lifespan. The following points should be kept in focus:
- Starting at age 40, adults can help sustain healthy memory function with regular physical activity and simple memory exercises. Former Director of the Center for Disease Control Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., said “We know that … being active is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.”
- By stepping one, two or three paces in the direction of an optimistic outlook on aging, you can improve your chances of avoiding dementia. Optimism fosters healthy lifestyle behaviors.
- By nurturing your social network, you can enrich the quality of your life and reap the rewards associated with generativity – providing support and guidance to younger generations. Read this article for more information on generativity and how it can help you and future generations.
Make this knowledge work for you. Translate the findings into behavioral habits that can improve the quality of your life.
Richard Houston holds a Doctorate in Education and was licensed by the Massachusetts Board of Psychology. He is a graduate of Brown University. He has conducted research on the psychological dimensions of healthy lifestyle behaviors and has had long term consulting relationships with several continuing care retirement communities. You can visit his website at Resilience-Advocate.com.