Our will to survive, even under the direst of circumstances, is the most powerful force within us. Before we evolved into the thoughtful, creative and intelligent creatures that we are, survival was pure instinct. But today it is equally grounded in our appreciation for being part of this wonderful existence on Earth.
As we have learned to tame risk and hardship in daily life, survival has given way to its close cousin longevity. We want to continually test the boundaries of our limited bodies so we can enjoy all of the things life has to offer – for as long as possible. For thousands of years we have imagined and then pursued every form of potion, elixir and magical natural spring of water to prolong life. From snake oil to the legendary fountain of youth, many people have lost their wages, and some their very lives, in search of a simple way to slow or stop the natural process of aging.
As medical science matured we began to understand that there is no such “magical” cure for our inevitable passing on. We learned that the life span of each of our physical bodies is determined by a long yet finite list of genetic, environmental, social, psychological and lifestyle factors. And we even learned that we can combat handicaps in our genetic makeup by working on disease risk factors that are under our control.
And so today, we understand how to prolong life in the physical sense within the known limitations of our bodies. Now our attention is becoming refocused on how to compliment our prolonged life with optimal psychological well-being. We still want to live as long as possible, but we also want to achieve real happiness in our lives – happiness based on healthy relationships with people and the world around us, the contentment that comes from feelings of purposefulness, and spirituality, however we individually define it. Interestingly, in the process of this exploration we learned that strong psychological health actually increases our chances of living a longer life, and that many of the lifestyle contributions that prolong life help create a healthier psychological foundation.
Today, when people refer to the concept of “wellness”, they usually describe a state of integrated psychological and physical health. But there is much more to true wellness than this.
First and foremost is brain health. The complex nature and critical importance of the brain in defining and controlling our being, along with the fact that it is a very special organ with very special needs, necessitates us looking at the brain and its health in a focused way. Brain health is an important and too-long neglected third dimension of true wellness.
All of our memories, thoughts, emotions, abilities, senses and many critical physiological functions are governed by our brains. Brain health also has important dependencies and co-dependencies with physical and psychological health. For example, an unhealthy body where vascular disease reduces blood flow to the brain often adversely affects the brain’s basic cognitive functions. This in turn can have a profound impact on mood and behaviour, compromising our psychological health. Poor psychological health in turn often creates real impediments to healthy lifestyle, further endangering our physical health – and the cycle continues. The brain works actively with the immune system to fend off disease. It rewires itself to fight terminal conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. It initiates sleep to allow our bodies to rest and recover. It regulates critical body functions like breathing. It controls everything from pain, sight, hunger, thirst, emotions and too many other things to list here. In short, if your brain isn’t healthy, it’s likely that your body and mind won’t be either.
Given all of this, why has it taken us so long to pay more attention to brain health? The delay can be largely attributed to the fact that scientists have only recently concluded that the brain is not a static mass of nerves destined for decline. Instead, it is a dynamic, evolving and complex organ that can be exercised and made stronger throughout our entire life. Now that we know this, we must take a new view of health. Even if we throw aside the brain’s crucial role in maintaining our overall health but accept that life as we know it is largely defined by our memories, then to ignore brain health is to sadly resign to the process of dying, even if we are working hard to preserve the rest of our bodies for as long as possible.
To be truly “well”, we must be healthy in each of the domains of physical, psychological and brain health. Once we achieve this, we need to keep it that way. This is where the important aspect of resilience comes in. Resilience is what keeps us healthy, even when we’re under threat from injury or illness.
In terms of physical health resilience means things like cardiovascular fitness, strength, balance, flexibility and optimal organ and systems functionality – achieved through exercise, proper nutrition and protecting ourselves from environmental dangers. When we have good physical resilience, our bodies can avoid the muscle injury that would have occurred in a less fit and flexible person – or fight off infection and disease more effectively.
In psychological health, resilience takes the form of a strong foundation for self-esteem, a sense of purpose, healthy relationships, and the overall social integration and support that helps us bounce back when life throws us one of its big challenges.
In brain health, resilience is referred to as brain reserve. It is the brain’s ability to recruit other neural networks or come up with alternate cognitive strategies when its health is compromised. Brain reserve can be built throughout our lives by keeping our brains active and physically healthy. This is why good scientific studies now suggest that people can avoid dementia by keeping their brains as fit as their bodies.
So, what is “wellness”? At Copeman Healthcare we say it is a state where the health and acquired resilience of the body, mind and brain provides a person with optimal quality of life and longevity. It stands to reason then that a “wellness program” starts with the prevention or control of disease, and then focuses on the building of resilience in each these fundamental areas of health.