07/09/2013 12:26 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

Do You Know Your Future Self? Your Health Depends On It

Recent research indicates that a positive connection to your future self is essential for your present self to make healthy choices. Healthy choices now, translate to a healthy future. And we have more future now than any other time in human history.

If that opening left you scratching your head, don't worry. Let's back up and see how we got here.

The biggest health problems have changed over the past century. While infectious disease was the leading killer 100 years ago, chronic degenerative illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and cancers now claim the most lives. This transition is forcing a change in healthcare.

The cause of infectious disease is a bacteria or virus or parasite, and medication (and decent hygiene/sanitation/plumbing) is the intervention. The cause of most chronic illnesses now is lifestyle choices -- and therefore behavior modification is often the intervention.

So the good news is we know what behaviors are killing us (sedentary lifestyle, smoking, poor diet, too much alcohol). Great, right? All we have to do is turn around those behaviors.

That's the bad news. There's nothing more difficult than changing someone's behavior. And that's especially true when the behavior to give up is experienced as pleasurable (sometimes even addictive) and the alternate behavior is seen as a real drag.

Two fields that have provided very useful models for the present health crisis are, and this will surprise you, behavioral economics and criminology. Behavioral economics has given us an idea called temporal discounting. Most people, when offered a choice of $50 now or $100 in 6 months, take the $50 now. You can easily see how this theory might apply to forgoing the dozen doughnuts now for good cardiac health later.

Criminology has demonstrated that, for the criminal, present rewards trump a capacity to envision future negative consequences. And if you look at health behavior or savings behavior in the U.S., we appear to be a lot like the criminal types in this regard. More than one in three adults are obese and 90 percent of Americans will not be able to retire and live on their savings and Social Security.

Our struggle to delay gratification and plan for the future should not surprise us. For most of our existence as a species, planning for the distant long-term future was not essential. A quick demonstration of how dramatically our life span has changed over the last 100 years (which is a millisecond of evolutionary time) illustrates the newness of our longevity. In the first part of the 20th century the average length of time spent in retirement was two years. That average now has hit 17.1 and 20.1 for men and women, respectively.

Now let's get back to where we started.

Research shows that if you are disconnected from an idea of yourself in the future, you are more likely to be a victim of temporal discounting when it comes to health behavior. This phenomenon parallels our willingness to help someone. The more similar/familiar the victim, the greater our willingness to play the good Samaritan. To make sacrifices for an alien future self makes as much sense as helping a total stranger.

So if we are to enjoy not only a longer lifespan, but a longer functional healthspan, we must befriend our future self. This can be tricky in a youth obsessed culture in which we seem increasingly dedicated to denying the aging process and keeping the elderly out of the sight. In fact, elegant research has demonstrated that our feelings about the elderly are a proxy for our relationship with our future self and vulnerability to temporal discounting.

So what can you do?

• Envision your life in the future
• Ask yourself what you want to be able to do?
• Ask yourself who you want to be there for?
• Write a letter from your future self to your present self describing a good future day
• Identify your target behaviors for change and try the approach I outlined in Change Is Easier Than You Think: Thinking's The Problem
• Get involved in helping an elderly person

Perhaps this is a return to basic values. If the 1960's gave us "be here now", the new mantra might read "be here and there now, and respect your elders."

For more by Paul Spector, M.D., click here.

For more on personal health, click here.