Can path to healthier nation be found in the mind?

This article originally appeared on July 16, 2012

In the months leading up to the [United States] Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), most of the nation’s attention was focused on the viability of the so-called individual mandate: the requirement for all Americans to have health insurance beginning in 2014. Conventional wisdom said that as the mandate goes, so goes the rest of law, regardless of how the court ruled on other aspects of the legislation.

Of course, by now everyone knows that this law, including the individual mandate, passed constitutional muster. What remains unknown, however, is whether this mandate will make us any healthier.

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Proponents of the ACA in general, and the individual mandate in particular, argue that the new law is a win-win in terms of lowering costs by adding more people to the insurance pool and improving lives by encouraging a more proactive approach to health care. 

But ask any doctor out there and they’ll likely tell you that it’s going to take more than an individual mandate to make people healthier. It’s going to take individual commitment.

The question is: What exactly should we be committing to?

“Eat right, exercise, and get plenty of rest,” is a pretty common refrain at the doctor’s office, and not a bad start. But what if your doctor told you to watch what you’re thinking as well, especially if you knew it could work as both a preventative and curative agent?

The fact is, the latest medical research is saying exactly this. And not just in the sense of maintaining a positive attitude in order to prevent or help you cope with some physical ailment. It’s much more specific than that, with an increasing number of studies pointing to the measurable health benefits to those who foster such moral, even spiritual, qualities of thought as forgiveness, compassion, gratitude, and love.

Case in point: A researcher here in California found that those who expressed an attitude of gratitude reported higher levels of vitality and optimism and lower levels of depression and stress, which alone accounts for between 60 percent and 90 percent of all doctor visits, and is widely considered to be a precursor to heart disease.

Another case in point: A doctor and medical researcher in Florida found that AIDS patients actively cultivating a spiritual outlook decreased their viral load and increased their immune cells compared to those who consciously disavowed such activity.

The beauty of these shifts in thought is that they’re immensely affordable and, as they become better understood, increasingly reliable. This is not to suggest that the problems confronting our health-care system can be wiped out in one fell swoop. 

It is a step in the right direction, one that includes no side effects and has the potential for the kind of moral transformation that benefits patient and public alike.

Eric Nelson
Legislative advocate for Christian Science in Northern California

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