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Our resilience and it turns out—even our longevity—depends on having a sense of agency over one’s health. When we talk about a sense of agency, we’re referring to having a feeling of control over what happens to us.

It’s important because it aids our mental stability, encouraging us to take action in the face of challenges and change.

But how exactly does it affect our health and how can we achieve it?

The Link Between Having a Sense of Agency and Our Health

Having that feeling of control over our thoughts, emotions, and actions (and their consequences) becomes less as we get older, making us more susceptible to pathological conditions.

It could manifest as schizophrenia, a severe and disabling mental disorder associated with significant health and social concerns. A study found that psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia resulted in lower awareness among sufferers. They were less perceptive of their own actions and the actions of others.

The same is true for patients experiencing borderline personality disorder (BPD). A 2022 research revealed that individuals who attributed their success and failures to external factors instead of their own personal efforts experienced more severe symptoms and had more negative views. Meanwhile, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), which focuses on helping people process and understand their feelings, helped minimize BPD symptoms.

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) supported these findings. A common characteristic among these patients was their persistent feelings of helplessness that impaired their ability to sufficiently evaluate their actions and their consequences.

Can Agency Over One’s Health Improve Lifespan?

In the previous section, we highlighted how a loss or reduction in one’s sense of agency can make a person vulnerable to psychological issues. The takeaway from various studies is better agency = low health challenges.

So, we know that having a low sense of control can lead to negative outcomes but what does having an appropriate level of agency look like?

An Awareness of Possible Outcomes and a Willingness To Take Responsibility

The ability to perceive cause and effect (or responsibility attribution), regardless of whether the outcome is positive or negative, is an indication of agency. According to social psychologist Bernard Weiner’s attribution theory, “The individuals’ perceptions of personal controllability over an outcome should predict judgments of responsibility that lead to specific emotions and behaviors.”

But how should you respond when you have little influence over the outcome?

Perceived responsibility sometimes elicits emotions like anger and annoyance. That’s why it’s important to take a step back and assess the situation. Understand where, to whom, and to what extent the responsibility lies before passing judgment.

Preventing Stress-Induced Negativity

According to The American Institute of Stress, 120,000 people die each year from work-related stress—and that doesn’t even account for the stress caused by personal problems! While stress won’t kill you directly, it weakens the body from the inside out. It makes us susceptible to high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, anxiety, depression, digestive issues, and more.

However, when people have agency over their health, they’re able to transform or compensate for the unavoidable sources of stress. This is done through problem-solving and purposeful activities like meditation, receiving therapy, laughing, exercising, etc. Since stress can accelerate aging and may lead to premature death, learning how to productively deal with it could add years to our lives.

How To Improve Longevity With a Greater Sense of Agency

When we take responsibility for our lives and health, we discover that we can do a lot of things to positively influence our lifespan.

Focus on Disease Prevention

As they say, “Prevention is better than the cure.” Having a greater sense of agency means taking control and responsibility for one’s health, especially before disease strikes.

For example, instead of going to the doctor when we feel sick or waiting until we have troubling symptoms, we can adopt a more proactive approach by scheduling annual checkups. If any diseases or irregularities are detected, we would have nipped them in the bud, increasing the likelihood of a better prognosis.

Here’s another great example: tobacco-related diseases. These are responsible for over  480,000 deaths among American adults each year. Meanwhile, secondhand smoke claims over 41,000 lives.

Obesity is another epidemic that’s completely avoidable. It affects more than 1 billion people worldwide who practice sedentary lifestyles and have poor diets.

Alcohol consumption and sexual practices are other examples of a poor sense of agency.

If we had a greater sense of agency over our lifestyles, we’d be more likely to give up unhealthy practices like these and replace them with routines that are better for our bodies.

Eat Well-Balanced Meals

Nutrition affects longevity. So, make a decision to increase your intake of veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and coffee.

Maintaining a good diet is one of the reasons why people in the blue zones live to be centenarians. They mostly have plant-based diets (low meat intake is associated with greater longevity) with minimal dairy, sugar-loaded food and drinks, and processed food.

Engage in a More Active Lifestyle

People with high levels of agency make decisions about what they want and find ways to achieve it. This practice influences memory, an important cognitive process that can help us recall past experiences to make more informed decisions about the present.

Let’s unpack this principle with an example. Let’s say you’re overweight and have difficulty moving around. You might recall that you were fit when you were younger and engaged in regular exercise. Realizing that the exercise probably helped with weight regulation, you’ll look for opportunities to move around daily. You might begin with a few minutes of walking each day, build up to walk-run intervals, and try to run a half-marathon in a year.

Improve Sleep Quality and Duration

People with a strong sense of agency over their health understand that their actions have consequences. Hence, getting the recommended hours of sleep is important to them. Since the body repairs itself during deep sleep, it can be the key to a healthier life.

This is backed by extensive studies. Based on information from the National Library of Medicine, our longevity is aided by having regular sleep, adequate deep sleep, and a healthy lipid profile (healthy levels of fat molecules in the blood).

Men with proper sleep quality and duration may enjoy longer lifespans by 4.7-years while women could get an additional 2.4 years.

Conclusion: Make Decisions That Positively Influence Health

Having a sense of agency over one’s health means knowing how to assume responsibility, acknowledging that actions have consequences, and using that information to make better decisions. At the end of the day, your life could depend on it.