By Sharon Jayson, Special for USA TODAY
Positive thinking and a positive attitude may indeed have power.
That belief has long been conjecture, but in recent years scientists studying the mind-body connection are finding that an optimistic outlook can improve more than just mental health.
Christopher Reeve's death this week, nine years after being paralyzed in a horseback riding accident is, to some researchers, an example of just how Reeve's positive attitude during his post-accident life surely contributed to an improved physical state.
"There is no doubt in my mind his positive attitude extended his life — probably dramatically. The fact that it didn't allow him to recover function of all limbs is besides the point," said Carol Ryff, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been studying whether or not high levels of psychological well-being benefit physical health.
"There is a science that is emerging that says a positive attitude isn't just a state of mind," she says. "It also has linkages to what's going on in the brain and in the body."
Ryff has shown that individuals with higher levels of well-being have lower cardiovascular risk, lower levels of stress hormones and lower levels of inflammation, which serves as a marker of the immune system.
Her research on positive mental states is among 44 current grants funded by the National Institutes of Health evaluating optimism. Most research in this area has focused on negative feelings, such as how stress, anxiety and depression affect physical health.
"Science in this area is at the very beginning," Ryff said. "For a long period of time, you couldn't even get funding to do research like this because there was such a preoccupation with illness and dysfunction."
Hard to measure happiness
It's clear that stressors produce abnormal changes in the immune system, said Ronald Glaser, director of Ohio State University's Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. Glaser and his wife, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a clinical psychologist also at Ohio State, studied the mind-body connection and found that chronic stress and psychological stress can impede wounds from healing, may impair the effectiveness of vaccines and can weaken the immune system of caregivers.
Kiecolt-Glaser says there is less definitive work on the benefits of a positive outlook because clearly defined scales, such as those used for measuring depression, don't exist for studying happiness. That makes a positive attitude much more difficult to quantify.
"In laboratories, there are lots of easy ways to make people depressed or anxious for a long period of time. It's harder to make people happy," she says. "The whole distress, anxiety, depression part matters more, from everything we know, than positive emotions. It's not as easy to see a positive effect."
The scientific recognition of a mind-body connection in health is gathering steam. Once the purview of new-age books that claim to show the path to healing, the evidence is in the rise in clinical trials: The NIH last year funded $143 million of mind-body research, with estimates of $149 million for 2004 and $153 million for 2005.
"Mind-body medicine is now scientifically proven," says Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who is considered a pioneer in the field. "There are literally thousands of articles on how the mind and brain affect the body."
Benson, author of 10 books, is founding president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston, a non-profit organization devoted to studying interactions between mind and body. He says Reeve's focus on improving the plight of others with disabilities, like Michael J. Fox's work with Parkinson's disease, in some ways may help them personally more than they realize.
"When a person can focus on something other than illness, it allows the body to take advantage of our own healing capacity," says Benson. "Hope in something beyond the illness and dedicating oneself to cures for the illness" rather than dwelling on oneself and one's illness "gives purpose to life," and helps prevent the negative effects of stress while medical science does its work.
Medical science also is taking note of alternative medicine. Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., has worked with the Reeve Paralysis Foundation to benefit those with spinal cord injuries. Terry Chase, the hospital's coordinator of patient and family education, has been confined to a wheelchair since being hit by a drunken driver while riding her bicycle 16 years ago. She says the hospital's alternative medicine program provides acupuncture, massage and aromatherapy to help patients feel better and stay positive.
She says they do "whatever we can to put people in a better place for their own healing — whatever healing they're going to have," she said. "We can't say it will cure them, but it may help them feel better and be more relaxed."
Perhaps one of the most vocal advocates for the power of a positive attitude is Bernie Siegel, a surgeon, author and motivational speaker known for such books as Love, Medicine & Miracles and Peace, Love & Healing.
"When people are willing to make an effort to cure what's incurable, I'll work with them," he says. "What goes on in your head affects your body."
But the message of well-intentioned morale-boosters such as Siegel sometimes is misunderstood by those who expect too much from the power of the mind and mistakenly think positive thoughts will bring about miraculous physical healing.
Ryff says people need to think not in terms of a cure, but of a better life.
"It's putting an impossible burden on the power of positive thinking to say in all cases, if this stuff really works, people should be cured. The right way to think is that this positive attitude orientation can actually keep life worth living and can possibly extend the period of life you have," she says. "It won't make the disease go away."
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