As mentioned in a previous chapter, any illness, disease or accident involves psychological factors at some or all of its stages. Health psychologists are interested in these relationships and in how people become ill, how they stop themselves from becoming ill, how they become well again once they have been ill, or how they deal with chronic illness, and finally what the relationships are between life circumstances (particularly stressful life circumstances) and illness.
Leading a healthy life depends on a deceptively straightforward set of conditions. They are:
■ sleeping sufficient hours each day - the amount varies from person to person;
■ eating breakfast;
■ not eating between meals;
■ staying at a reasonable weight;
■ drinking alcohol barely or not at all;
■ having regular physical exercise.
Of course, one might ask the question - why would one want to stick to these prescriptions? Many of them preclude quite enjoyable things. Some people fully engage in sitting around eating, drinking, smoking, staying up late and not exercising. The major answer to the question is that life is prolonged (as well as being more comfortable while it lasts).
To take some of these matters in turn, smoking is extremely costly to any society because of its serious effects on health. These effects can also be indirect as well as direct (lung cancer, emphysema, etc.) through, for example, leading to reduced lung capacity which in turn makes it less likely that a person will exercise.
Although there is some evidence that very moderate drinking of alcohol might reduce mortality slightly, heavy alcohol consumption clearly increases the risk. Again some of the risks are indirect. For example, after drinking too much, there is an increased risk of having a motor accident, of being burned in a fire or of drowning.
Dieting has been mentioned in an earlier chapter, and these days in Western society many people know a great deal about diet; enormous amounts are written about it. The problems associated with poor nutrition are huge and widespread. Obvious examples come from narrowing of the arteries through cholesterol deposits, the likelihood of these being increased by eating certain foods. In general, though, the evidence about the significance (positively or negatively) of high-fat diets is mixed. Similarly, there are links between hypertension (high blood pressure) and diet and hypertension increase the risk of strokes and coronary heart disease. Probably, in the midst of many fads and fancies, the im -portant point to make about nutrition is that a good diet is a balanced diet and contains a variety of foods with not too much in the way of saturated fats.
Exercise has an effect on most of the aspects of a healthy life so far mentioned. Weight, cholesterol and blood pressure are reduced and there are positive effects of physical exercise on self-esteem and the consequent reduction of stress. Of course, strong physical exercise also carries a risk of injury, but this risk might be preferable to the risks that are run by the absence of exercise. The question becomes: just how much exercise is 'good'? The answer must vary from person to person and there are also numerous views on this. For it to be useful, though, it must be regular, last for a reasonable time and be aerobic - that is, it should get the heart rate and respiration up. (Anaerobic exercise - short bursts of energy - does not increase oxygen consumption and therefore does not much increase heart or lung fitness.)
The final aspect of staying healthy does not usually appear in any list of prescriptions, perhaps because it seems to be something that is less under the control of the individual than matters like diet and exercise. It is the risk of accident. Accidents (particularly road traffic accidents) are among the highest causes of death and injury in industrialised countries, and relatively high in developing countries. In people aged 15 to 24, about 50 per cent of deaths are from accidents.
Think it through a little and it becomes obvious that accidents are to some extent under personal control. For example, the risk of accident increases a great deal when a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the taking of which is voluntary. Other background factors are less under personal control. For example, one cannot do very much about one's age. Similarly, males are three times more likely to have accidents than females, and, mostly, we can do little about our gender. Of course, this is probably because, in Western society, men are more likely than women to work in relatively high-risk jobs.
There might also be personality differences in proneness to accident. For example, people who are high in aggressiveness and competitiveness are more likely to have accidents than those who are low on these dimensions. Similarly, high sensation-seekers are inevitably more likely to have accidents than low sensation-seekers. Controlling the likelihood of accidents is not easy, but there are two possible ways of going about it. Efforts can be made to change the environment to make accidents less likely - speed restrictions on the road are an obvious example of this. The other possibility is through changing our own attitudes towards any situation, such as driving, in which an accident is likely to occur.
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Alcoholism is something that can't be formed in easy terms. Alcoholism as a whole refers to the circumstance whereby there's an obsession in man to keep ingesting beverages with alcohol content which is injurious to health. The circumstance of alcoholism doesn't let the person addicted have any command over ingestion despite being cognizant of the damaging consequences ensuing from it.