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Careful What You Think: Minding One's Health

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Can what you believe affect your health? There are cases where it clearly does -- for good or (literally) ill. There are people who gorge themselves on junk food because they believe heart disease "won't happen to me." And there are others who abstain from cigarettes, alcohol and caffeine because of their religious beliefs. And, of course, we're all familiar with various bits of folk wisdom such as "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."

Each of us has an internalized set of health-related beliefs that is unique to us. You'll find differences even when comparing beliefs about health with members of your peer group or even your own family. How can this be?

We all experience times of feeling great and times of feeling lousy. With our uniquely human way of seeking patterns, we all try to spot links between what we do and changes in our health. If we hear of something recommended to improve health, we may try it out and see what happens. So it is that one person swears by drinking three liters of water a day, eating raw vegetables and walking the dog, while another touts the virtues of healing crystals, color therapy and positive thinking, and another advocates a small glass of red wine and a low-dose aspirin pill every day.

Our health outcomes are even affected by beliefs related to our medical practitioners and care: In any dealings with healthcare professionals (HCPs) -- nurses, physicians, psychotherapists, et. al. -- patients respond better when there is a good relationship. Patients who feel they are being heard and understood and who believe the HCP is good at his or her job are more likely to believe and to act on what they are told. And then there's the placebo effect. Numerous studies have shown that even those receiving an inactive substance in a clinical trial tend to show measurable and felt improvements. These phenomena are now being studied in depth by the Harvard-wide Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter.

When we undertook our most recent global survey -- questioning more than 7,200 adults in 19 countries on topics related to health and wellness -- we included a range of questions intended to help us better understand the role of belief in healthcare. We discovered that the ancient notion of the mind-body link is alive and well across cultures in our modern world: Six in 10 respondents believe "Powerful thoughts can help heal a person." More astonishing, four in 10 actually believe "Most illness is psychosomatic -- it's all in your head."

We also uncovered some thought-provoking responses to questions regarding the extent to which people believe they can control whether they develop specific diseases and disorders. For example, we asked, "How much do you think it's within your control whether you develop a sexually transmitted disease?" More than half the sample (53 percent) said they have a lot of control and 19 percent think they have at least some control. What surprised us was the 15 percent of people who think that whether they contract an STD is either mostly or entirely outside their control. Bearing in mind what is widely known and publicized about STDs, I can't help wondering what prompts someone to believe they have little or no control over contracting one. Did they miss out on sex education classes, or maybe just not believe them? Are there that many people who feel forced into risky sex? Or are we so lazy or complacent that we just accept the risk?

It was a similar story with obesity -- 9 percent think it is mostly outside their control and 6 percent entirely outside their control.

At the other end of the spectrum, almost a quarter (24 percent) think it is mostly out of their control whether they develop leukemia, and 30 percent think it is entirely out of their control. Yet 11 percent of respondents think they have some control, and 8 percent think they have a lot of control. That's intriguing. Medical science says there is no known way to prevent most types of leukemia. Yet almost 20 percent of people in our survey think they can.

The pattern is similar with brain tumors: 10 percent think they have some control, and 7 percent think they have a lot of control.

These findings raise important issues for anyone involved in healthcare and communication. Public health initiatives have worked hard at getting people to take more responsibility for their health, with the clear message that they have some control over it. So how is it that 15 percent of people think they have little or no control over developing STDs and another 14 percent don't know? And what personal responsibility message are people taking out of healthcare communications if they believe they can control whether they develop leukemia or a brain tumor?

My sense is that slowly but surely, more people are understanding the principle of taking more responsibility for their health, even though they may not put it into practice as much as they would like. The upside is that they -- we -- know what it takes to get healthier and stay healthier. The downside is that nagging sense of guilt constantly muttering in the background: "I should exercise more," "I should lose weight" and "I should avoid cheese and red meat." Worse, for some people who develop a serious illness, there can be a lingering suspicion that it's somehow their "fault" even if it's something entirely beyond their control.

Still, despite these downsides and some quirky notions, the survey shows that most people have embraced beliefs that will help them live more healthily, including paying attention to food ingredients and getting adequate sleep. For health authorities and healthcare marketers, I believe that's a good result.

Naomi Troni is the Global Chief Marketing Officer at Euro RSCG Worldwide. Find out more about Euro RSCG Worldwide's Prosumer Report "My Body, Myself, Our Problem. Health and Wellness in Modern Times" by clicking here

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