Does “Fighting Spirit” Affect Health?

By James S. Gordon MD

Richard Sloan’s op-ed in the New York Times (“A fighting spirit won’t save your life”, January 25, 2011) is guilty of precisely the faults he attributes to those who believe that attitude can affect health – smug, self-righteous, and short on scientific evidence.

Prof. Sloan is of course correct when he takes to task those who believe that “requests to the universe” ensure good health, or that good people always receive good prognoses. But these are extremes, rhetorical straw men. There have in fact been years of important scientific investigations on the very real benefits of hopefulness and positive expectation.

Here are several examples: a 15 year follow-up of Steven Greer’s landmark study showed that a fighting spirit didn’t, over the long haul, enhance survival for women with advanced breast cancer; on the other hand, the follow-up did demonstrate that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness significantly decreased longevity. Contrary to what Prof. Sloan suggests, the pioneering work of Redford Williams and others has clearly shown connections between hostility and heart disease. And a number of investigations over 20 years have demonstrated that people with lung cancer who are more optimistic actually have better prognoses than those with a similar stage of disease and physical findings who are less sanguine.

Prof. Sloan does a disservice to readers and to the truth when he categorically denies the power of hope in healing.