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Doctor says happy thoughts can make healthier patients

Seminar scheduled today

POSTED: March 30, 2008 5:01 a.m.

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Can laughter and playfulness improve your health? Dr. Dale Anderson thinks so, and there’s research to back him up.

A practicing physician for almost 50 years, Anderson is a best-selling author and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota medical school. He emphasizes holistic medicine, which explores the connection between mind and body.

Anderson is the featured speaker today at the "Health and Happiness Conference," sponsored by Brenau University, Featherbone Communiversity and Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

It’s the first major public event to take place in Brenau’s new nursing school auditorium at 1001 Chestnut St. This morning, Anderson will lead a seminar aimed at health care professionals. Then at 2:30 p.m., registration begins for a free presentation for the general public, titled "You Only Live Once."

Anderson said he will explain his "Act Happy" method, which teaches people to change their behavior in ways that can affect their brain chemistry.

Though he may sound like a feel-good motivational speaker, Anderson said everything he presents is based on science.

"Now we can measure the physiology of emotion. We can PET-scan it," he said. "We do have parts of our brains that respond to performing in a positive way."

Anderson first noticed this phenomenon about three decades ago, long before there were fancy imaging techniques to look inside the brain. Within his Minneapolis-St.Paul medical practice, he had many patients who worked in theater.

"We found that the actors who were playing sad roles felt more aches and pains (then those who played upbeat roles)," he said.

When actors have to draw upon negative emotions to play their roles, it can have a detrimental effect on their health. Anderson reasoned that the reverse must be true — that if people simply began to act as if they were happy, it could have a beneficial effect on their biochemistry.

"What I’ve been teaching patients for 25 or 30 years is, how do you become a ‘method actor’ in everyday life?" he said. "How do you get into a part and play it enough that it becomes the real you?"

At this afternoon’s workshop, Anderson will lead the audience in exercises designed to stimulate the brain’s own pleasure-inducing chemicals.

"It’s going to be fun. It’s about why laughter is important," he said. "But it’s not just laughter. It’s breathing, and even posture. You can get 10 percent more oxygen if you stand up straight."

Anderson said a change in behavior can not only alter the brain’s chemistry; it can also reshape the brain’s physical structure.

"When most of us were kids, we were told that we are born with so many brain cells and they all die off one by one," he said. "Now we’re learning that they do not all die off, and we can gain new ones. But even more importantly, we can add many, many branches to the brain cells we have."

Anderson said the brain forms new pathways whenever we engage in unfamiliar experiences. So he advises people to try doing things they’ve never done before, especially activities that involve sensory input.

Examples include taking a different route to work, brushing your teeth with the opposite hand, doing a task while balancing on one foot, eating a new food and trying to identify the ingredients, and trying to guess the denomination of coins simply by feeling them.

Research shows that even Alzheimer’s patients have a slower progression of disease when their brains are continually exposed to new challenges.

Anderson, still energetic at 75, said many people stop exploring their world as they get older because they’ve been told to "act your age."

"Don’t be afraid to be childlike again," he said.

Though these activities are especially helpful for seniors, Anderson said anyone can benefit.

"The sooner you start doing these exercises, the better," he said.

Keeta Wilborn, chairwoman of Brenau’s nursing department, said the seminar is drawing interest from a broad spectrum of people.

"I’m excited about it," she said. "I hear Dr. Anderson is an excellent speaker. And what I like about it is that he’s not trying to sell you some product."

Wilborn said many Americans are frustrated by the current health care system and are looking for alternatives to drugs and surgery.

"Holistic medicine is becoming more accepted, I think because of the baby boomers," she said. "Doctors are trying to keep up with their patients."

Wilborn noted that what Anderson advocates is different from the trend years ago, when cancer patients were taught that "positive visualization" would help them overcome their disease. That approach led patients to feel like failures when they did not get better.

"You can change your brain chemistry, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to get sick," she said. "And if you do get sick, it’s not necessarily because of something you did or didn’t do."

Anderson agrees.

"I’m not claiming this is a cure for anything. I’m a very conventional physician," he said. "But we can still feel better and enjoy life by doing some of these activities."



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