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Breathe, Child, Breathe: Texas Learns To Relax After New Studies Link Hostility and Disease

Aug 21, 2007
We should listen to our grandparents more. Really. As a young adult, I am often criticized for my arrogant and wanton ways, for my blatant disregard of my elders' advice -- wisdom gained only through the tumultuous experience of aging. In the health insurance industry, I am called one of the "young invincibles" for my underlying, if denied, belief that, "Hey, I'm young. Nothing will happen to me. I don't need health insurance."

But science confirms many "old wives' tales" on a regular basis, so often passed off as uneducated and outdated beliefs. The more I research, the more sheepish I become. I remember hearing from a world-traveled grandfather after almost daily temper tantrums, "Good Lord, child, you're going to give yourself a heart attack. Breathe, will ya'?" What can I say? I was a high-strung kid.

And, guiltily bleating in concordance with my sheep-like expression, I have to admit my grandfather seems to have been right. Recent studies published in Health Psychology, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, and online at Thorax, confirm that hostility and disease, and hostility and decreased lung function are linked. Basically, that means that the more hostile we are, the less likely we are to be healthy, and the less likely we are to breathe properly.

We see it everyday, though glowering, red-eyed anger. Statistically, America is much more violent than other industrialized nations, driving up our health insurance rates and forcing our children to think much too early on in life about "stranger danger." Especially over the last few years, the United States seems to have developed a reputation for being rather hostile as a country. Road rage now seems commonplace, and it's difficult to turn on the evening news in any major city without hearing about at least one horribly violent incident. Perhaps states like Texas, with its unofficial "Don't Mess With Texas" motto should take a few deep-breathing classes.

Stephen H. Boyle, lead author of a study published this August in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, and researcher at Duke University Medical Center, analyzed data collected from 313 Vietnam veterans over ten years. Participants were given regular physical and psychological examinations, which included completing well-established questionnaires designed to determine levels of hostility, anger, and depression. The vets blood levels of C3, a protein marker for inflammation known to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, were also measured.

Those subjects who tested in the highest one-quarter in hostility, anger, and depression showed "steady and significant" increases in C3 levels, while those who tested in the bottom quarter showed no increase at all. The study, as a whole, determined that anger and hostility may elevate the risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. While Boyle does not claim any direct cause-effect relationships as of yet, he suggests that anger in hostile and depressed men may set off a series of chemical responses in the immune system that leads to inflammation.

Boyle isn't the only one to undertake studies that, in one way or another, test one of the many expressions that swear taking it easy prolongs life. Dr. Benita Jackson, assistant professor of psychology at Smith College, led a study published this May in Health Psychology suggesting that hostility levels influenced pulmonary function. The more hostile subjects of her study were, the more their lung function declined.

Jackson's research utilized questionnaires and objective breathing tests from 4,629 healthy adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty to determine levels of hostility, breathing efficiency, and lung capacity. For every one-fifth increase on the hostility scale subjects displayed, there was a corresponding decrease in lung function. Marked effects were seen in black men, black women, and white women, but not among white men.

Jackson is the first to admit that the study is not conclusive. Certain variables, like environmental factors and other psychological or cultural influences, were not controlled for, which may explain the discrepancy in white males. The study did not conclusively determine a direct cause-and-effect relationship between pulmonary function and hostility, though an association was established. In other words, poor lung function itself could cause hostility, but environmental factors (like air pollution) could cause either poor lung function, hostility, or both. The cautious conclusion, which accompanies most scientific studies, was that hostility did play a role, whether it was the "chicken or the egg."

All this brings to mind the advice many ancient forms of medicine have given for thousands of years, including Traditional Chinese Medicine, which believes that the manner in which one breathes determines much about his or her health. Qigong, meditation practices, yoga, and martial arts -- studios of which are cropping up all across even "Don't Mess With" cities like Dallas, Houston, and Austin -- are all centered around the concept that breathing properly is as integral to health as we now believe conscientious eating is.

It makes sense, really, the more I think about it, and perhaps there isn't really much of a difference between old wives' tales and ancient medical knowledge -- in that they both come from a basis of common sense usually derived from millennia of human observation. Maybe PaPa was just listening to the ancients when he said (over and over again), "Breathe, child, breathe."

Being aware of psychological issues affecting your health is an important part of taking care of yourself. Minding your health will certainly affect you as you age, and eventually your wallet.
About the Author
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com
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