With the epidemic escalation of obesity, diabetes, depression, and dementia, the health of Western society is going the wrong way at an ever increasingly rapid pace. Now, more than ever, we need thoughtful, intelligent, powerful, “brain smart” women, to guide and redirect our families, communities, churches, workplaces, nation, and world. And women are in a unique position to make a dramatic difference.
One of the reasons I decided to write this book now is because I know what an enormous difference women can make. Growing up, my mother was the health leader in our home, and today my wife, Tana, plays the same role. I have seen this pattern repeat over and over in the families I treat as a physician. As the adult females take better care of themselves, it tends to positively affect those around them.
As a neuroscientist, psychiatrist, and brain imaging specialist, I have known for decades that women typically take their physical and mental health more seriously than men do. That is one of the reasons, I’m convinced, that they also live longer on average than men. In 2010, U.S. women lived an average of 80 years, as opposed to only 73 years for U.S. men. In Russia, women live 12 years longer than men — so, men, if you’re reading this to better understand women, you might want to hold the vodka.
Women also worry more about their health, which, ironically, is one of the major factors associated with longevity. The “don’t worry, be happy” people — more often men drinking at bars or four-wheeling in the desert — are more likely to die earlier from accidents or preventable illnesses, such as alcoholism, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Those who are appropriately concerned about their health, ultimately take better care of themselves and live longer, healthier, and happier lives.
Maybe we should change the phrase from “Don’t worry, be happy” to “Be concerned, live longer, be happy!”
Women also engage in fewer behaviors that damage the “executive control center” in the front part of their brains, where decisions are made, self-control is exerted, and forward thinking takes place. Girls are less likely to engage in brain-damaging behaviors such as hitting soccer balls with their heads, or playing tackle football…at least they used to be, until the explosion of soccer among young girls.
Women may also live longer than men because they exhibit greater empathy and ability to forgive, which helps them do a better job at weathering the inevitable storms of injustice that rain on us all.
In our own patient outcome studies at the Amen Clinics, both men and women get better at very high rates. Yet, our female patients tend to do better, because they are more compliant and take our treatment recommendations more seriously.
Empathic, concerned women aren’t just thinking of themselves. They’re also thinking about their husbands, which may very well be one reason why married men live longer than unmarried men. I often hear wives nagging their husbands to take better care of themselves. They set out their fish oil capsules and vitamins, and encourage them to go to the doctor. Yet, in some studies, married women do not live longer than unmarried women, and they may even have shorter lives. I think the stress of taking care of stubbornly resistant males can wear them out. Here’s an example:
Nabil and his wife Monica were both physicians who worked together. One day Nabil called his wife saying he vomited and had a bad headache and was not coming to work. Alarmed, Monica told Nabil to go to the hospital. Nabil said he would be OK and that he just needed a nap and hung up the phone. Knowing the symptoms could be serious, Monica called Nabil back and pleaded with him to seek immediate help. Nabil told his wife he would be ok and not to worry about him. Knowing how much more significant the symptoms could be for people in their early 60s, Monica’s worry skyrocketed. She raced home and took Nabil to the emergency room where it was discovered that he had a brain aneurysm. Without immediate medical help, the neurosurgeon told the couple, Nabil would have been dead within an hour.
Women often become the health monitors in their families because they tend to realize and admit problems faster than men. They typically reach out for help and community support years or even decades before their male counterparts. At the Amen Clinics, we see that when a couple is struggling in their relationship, the woman is most often the one who calls for help. Eight out of 10 times, when a child is having problems, the mother is the one who calls us, even when both parents work full-time.
Everywhere I look, I see women acting as the health leaders in their families and communities. As one of the co-creators of The Daniel Plan — Pastor Rick Warren and Saddleback Church’s program to get the world healthy through religious organizations — I have seen, not surprisingly, that 85 percent of the people who signed up to get healthy in their churches were women.
As a male psychiatrist and physician, I’m increasingly troubled about the way such large numbers of men are falling behind. I remember the day I read that statistic from our research team at Saddleback Church… and had an absolute tantrum! Men have to do better, but it is often at the insistence of our mothers and wives.
In my experience, women are most often the ones who pull the lever for change. They’re typically the ones who plan the meals, and they are often the ones who coordinate household activities and oversee the children. Growing up with a powerful matriarch, I learned firsthand that when Mom gets health right, everybody else has the best opportunity to get it right too. And when Mom doesn’t get it right, that can have a truly devastating effect on both the physical and mental health of the whole family.
During my psychiatric residency training I studied children and grandchildren of alcoholics. One of my best friends grew up in a severely abusive alcoholic home. One of my research findings was that if your father was an alcoholic it had a significant negative effect on your emotional development. But if your mother was the alcoholic the devastating effects were much more profound. It is essential to keep the female brain healthy.
Most of this book is devoted to helping you unleash the power of your own female brain. Once you fall in love with your brain and learn out how to take care of it, and do the steps I recommend, you’ll be able to influence your loved ones and create a brain-healthy community around you, further supporting your own efforts to be well.
In my last book, Use Your Brain to Change Your Age, I wrote about Marianne, the Western Regional Director for Franklin Covey, the highly successful training and consulting company. At 59 years old she felt that her mind was beginning to deteriorate. Physically, she hurt all over her body and she felt foggy headed most of the day. At first she thought that she was just getting older, it happened to everyone. But as she got worse she thought it was unfair to her co-workers that she wasn’t at the top of her game, and she considered resigning. She believed her best days were behind her. Then, fortuitously, one of her daughters gave her a copy of one of my programs, which she immediately started. To her amazement, within two months she felt much better… her pain was gone and the brain fog had lifted. And by staying on the program, within a year she had lost 60 pounds and her brain felt younger, sharper, and more energized than it had in decades. “I have a fast acting brain with the wisdom of experience,” she told me. “I feel like I am at the peak of my life and my best is no longer behind me.”
Recently, Marianne and I were together at a Franklin Covey conference where I was speaking. She told me that as she had gotten healthier one of her daughters got healthier as well. Her daughter had been 140 pounds overweight. But seeing her mother’s remarkable progress she wanted the same health benefits for herself and over the next two years lost the 140 pounds. Marianne’s remarkable change also inspired her husband to get healthy. In fact, everything at her workplace changed as well. She changed the food at work and was amazed at how much more energy her team had and how much more they accomplished during meetings. “We used to be worn out toward the end of the day. But since we started serving only brain healthy food at work, everyone’s energy is up and we are much more productive.”
Marianne is the poster female for change in her family, in her business, and her community. My hope is that you will be like Marianne and change your world, too.