This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 14 table of contents.

Health Psychology

The discipline known as health psychology overlaps behavioral medicine and medical psychology. The difference is one of emphasis. A health psychologist is typically involved in preventative medicine and promoting healthy lifestyles. This includes promoting...

What is the emphasis of health psychology?

—Physical fitness

—Good nutrition and weight control

—Programs to eliminate smoking, alcohol, and chemical abuse

—Accident prevention

—Screening for high blood pressure

—Appropriate medical self-care

—Stress management

—Preventative health care for children

To understand why Health Psychology is important, it helps to consider the very dramatic changes in causes of human death that have taken place in the last 100 years. A century ago, the leading cause of death was infection. People could become ill and die within a few weeks, at any age, because an injury became infected, or because of a common viral or bacterial infection such as tuberculosis, polio, smallpox, or malaria.

How have typical causes of death changed in the past century? Why does this show a need for health psychology?

A century later, all these diseases were either wiped out or in retreat (although tuberculosis was threatening to make a comeback in some areas). Now people die primarily because diseases and accidents caused by their own behavior, or else they live to an old age. The leading causes of death before old age are all related to behavior. These include heart disease, cancer, and automobile accidents.

Health psychologists face the challenge of trying to persuade people to be good to their own bodies so they can lead longer and healthier lives. This means making behavioral changes to prevent obesity, or quitting smoking, or wearing seatbelts or avoiding text messaging or drinking while driving, to increase their chances of staying alive to old age.

Daniel Kirschenbaum, director of the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Chicago, sketched this scenario shortly after Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia died in 1995:

What example did Kirschenbaum use after Jerry Garcia's death?

Imagine that you're a successful San Francisco physician in 1992, and rock icon Jerry Garcia walks into your office for a physical. After telling the Grateful Dead guitarist that you love his music, the conversation takes a scolding turn. You have to warn him that his smoking, drug dependence, and overeating will kill him within three years (Sleek, 1995).

Possibly this "scolding" would not have been well received. But it is exactly the type of message a lot of people in modern society need to hear before it is too late. In the 21st Century, the leading causes of death were all heavily influenced by lifestyle, that is, by behavioral habits. Therefore, psychology—which can be applied toward changing behavior or habits—is increasingly relevant to the field of medicine.

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