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Take control of your health

Personality and disease appear to have a definite relationship. It’s as old as the ancient Greek philosophers. The first physician, Hippocrates, believed bodily fluids, called humors, influenced personality and health. There were thought to be four humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood.

In Hippocrates’ way of looking at the world, people with excess black bile (bile refers to the juices in your stomach) were inclined toward depression, too much yellow bile suggested bitterness, hostility. Excess phlegm denoted apathy. Blood made you hearty and ruddy, but too much meant a fever (hence, blood-letting to eliminate the fever).

Over the centuries we lost, and then found again, a relationship between disease and personality. Currently, it looks something like this. Hostility is right up there with cigarette smoking in paving the way to coronary artery disease. Worry can do it too. One research study found that men who reported worrying a lot were 2½ times more likely to develop heart disease.

There’s also a link between heart disease and personality that shows up as depression. Lots of research on this one. When you look at the best science, a clinical diagnosis of depression makes you 1½ times more likely to have coronary heart disease.

I keep looking for the best health message about all this. Maybe it’s found in the old Bobby McFerrin song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” But it’s not that easy, of course.

Rarely being cranky and anxiety-free is not realistic — especially when each day’s news is full of warnings about the delta variant and anguishing photos of the exit from Afghanistan.

What to do? There are a number of studies that suggest disease-free lifestyles are tied to feeling in control of your life, feeling an absence of helplessness. Hostile, yellow-bile people, and depressed, black-bile people might feel they don’t have enough control of their life situations. (Stay with me here, I have a point to make…)

There’s a classic 1970s study that looked at nursing home residents. In this study some nursing home residents were given informed choices, some weren’t. After 18 months, the residents more in control, the ones who had choices, such as what movie they would watch or specific decisions about their own room care, ended up being “more alert” with “better self-rated health.” Add to that, the more in-control residents lived longer. Well now.

Lost control is very real as we age. We lose hearing, vision, mobility. Long-held careers end. These events, and the feelings we have about them, can exacerbate disease conditions … if we let them.

Here’s the health message: Take control. But do it responsibly — using science as your guide. You’re experiencing hearing difficulties, major ones. It’s frustrating. It irritates you, possibly makes you a little cranky. Take control. Explore the possibilities of a hearing aid. At least, consider having your hearing assessed.

Vision getting cloudy? Get it checked. Worried about getting the delta variant/COVID? Get vaccinated. Wear the mask. Think of it as “informed choice.” Or maybe you should think about it as having control over a life-and-death decision.

Sharon Johnson is a retired health educator. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.