Be Well for Life

December 17th, 2012 by Jamie Stringfellow

Healthy Living expert Dr. Alison Moy shares how healthy living is more than just exercise – it’s a state of mind.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

As the Medical Director for Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston, a Liberty Mutual company, Dr. Alison Moy’s day-to-day work is devoted to studying how lifestyle choices impact health, wellness and longevity. Additionally, Dr. Moy serves as the medical spokesperson for Liberty’s Be Well for LifeSM program.

Would you describe how you use "medically-based third-party research" in your work for Liberty Mutual? 

I review published medical science as it appears in peer reviewed medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine. I study the health factors that influence how long people live and where medical science is improving the outcomes. My role is to advise our product and underwriting teams on the implications for our customers. We’re bombarded with so many seemingly contradictory medical studies and advice; it’s hard to figure out what’s useful on a day-to-day basis.

We know today that consumers are drowning in information, and they don’t know if what they’re getting is accurate. The new paradigm in healthcare is patient-centered care, a therapeutic alliance between patient and doctor. Our goal with Be Well for Life is to curate all that information, and translate it into simpler terms, so a person can take what they learn and work with their doctor.   

You’ve chosen some timely topics, such as coping with the stress many Baby Boomers feel when they’re ‘sandwiched’ – in other words, caring for both their children and their aging parents.

It’s a situation that 50 million Americans find themselves in, living in multigenerational homes. You’re still driving teenagers to soccer, as well as serving as the primary caretaker for an elderly parent. This demographic has tackled a lot of stress successfully and has skill sets that have helped them navigate life changes. But then there’s the stress that they might view as insurmountable. You can’t act to reduce your stress, unless you know to say to yourself, I know this is more stress than I’m used to facing daily

It’s very enlightening – scientists have disproved that idea that “worry never hurt anybody.” There are actual changes to cells of people under chronic stress.   

About ten years ago at UCSF [the University of California/San Francisco], scientists looked at a cellular component called a telomere (which is like the narrow end of a shoelace) in mothers with chronically ill children. Their cells had shortened telomeres (like a frayed shoelace) compared to mothers who didn’t have sick kids. So scientists asked: What about someone who cares for an elderly parent day to day? Could they be experiencing the same kind of cellular aging? And the answer is yes. 

What does this shortened telomere mean? 

Chronic stress affects the rate at which they’re aging – the cellular change is a marker of biologic aging. It’s kind of like when the check engine light comes on in a car. 

So how might this inform the way someone talks to his/her doctor? 

When you go for this next physical, you should let the doctor know you have responsibility for generations on either side. “I’m caring for my ill mother, but I’m also caring for this 24-year-old who moved back home because he couldn’t find a job after college.” Your doctor will have a heightened awareness of the stress and its impacts on your health. You might become more mindful of the point where you say I have a little too much this week.

So you won’t be advocating treatment plans?

Right. We want to be the conversation starter and encourage that therapeutic alliance. It’s our form of being responsible. 

Can you share any other findings you've uncovered in the third-party research? 

Well, It seems there’s a map of living to a good old age! Another video [on Be Well for Life] is about the personality traits that predominate in people 100 and older. It’s called the NFFI- The Neo Five Factor Inventory. It boils down to five factors:

Neuroticism: This is when someone gets easily distressed, or they believe that they can never be successful at anything. It’s good to have low levels of this. 

It’s good to have high levels of the other factors: extroversion or outgoingness – being warm, active. 

Openness – being open to new experiences and ideas, being flexible and curious.

The fourth one is agreeableness. Are you cooperative, empathetic, and not easily offended? People who are easily offended quickly become hostile and that contributes to excessive stress. 

The fifth one is conscientiousness. This includes being industrious, being self-disciplined and socially responsible. 

The last trait studied that’s not a distinct part of the inventory is optimism. If people believe outcomes in the future will be positive, they live longer and healthier lives. 

Would you talk more about the correlation between longevity and conscientiousness and optimism? 

Well, among diverse types of people there is really strong evidence that those who score high in conscientiousness have improved outcomes after cardiovascular disease. And, if given a cancer diagnosis, they have improved survival rates. Those who score high in optimism have longer or better “all-cause mortality.”   

We’ve heard a lot about neuroplasticity in recent years. Does this mean that if someone hasn’t scored so well on this index, they can still change, knowing that these things will affect the rest of their life?

Right. Personality is not set in stone. The brain adapts, and our personalities do. So next time I am tempted to have road rage because I want to be in the left lane and that person’s only doing 60, I might take a minute and say, I’m being easily offended here … it’s not helpful to me. If you knew having this attitude toward a problem would help you live longer, you could learn to view it differently. That’s a pretty unique idea. 

So you can teach yourself to think and behave differently – at any age – right?

People really did think that your brain was wired one way, and it stayed that way. If you kill a neuron, it’s dead forever. No! There is repair, there is birth, and there is growth, new tracks being formed, new connections, and new memories. It’s so full of hope. 

There are additional topics you'll be covering in The Be Well for Life campaign. For example, the site will describe “health numbers” every person should know. Could you give us a preview? 

This is to help people communicate with their doctor, and it acknowledges the fact that they too have a personal responsibility in this new paradigm of patient care. So, some of the numbers they should know are their weight, their waist measurement, their blood pressure, glucose readings, cholesterol. But at the same token, they need to know what do these numbers mean to me? And how can my doctor help me to make these numbers better?

This “therapeutic alliance” is a two-way street. We are really supporting people in engaging with their doctor and taking responsibility. 

I like the name ‘Be Well for Life.’ It’s neat you can read that two ways: “Be well for the entirety of your life,” and “Be well for the sake of your life.”

Exactly!   

How did you come to this position? It seems like such a great job.

It’s a fantastic job! I grew up in Atlanta, and graduated from Davidson College and medical school at Emory. Then I came up north for all of my training – an internal medicine residency at UConn and a fellowship in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at Yale. Then I experimented, trying to find that personal fit. I’ve been at Liberty Mutual for 12 years. 

What does a typical day look like for you? 

I read, read, and read some more. I also help the underwriters and actuaries who look at medical information all day and I help them make sense of it so we can make good decisions for people who want to buy life insurance and annuities. 

It's been said, "Knowledge is power." Do you have a vision for a world in which people are well informed about their medical choices and the personal responsibility they can assume for their health? 

I love this question. I never dreamed, when I was at medical school sorting through big stacks of books, that someday, through a computer, I would be able to read cutting-edge research from just about any journal in the world. The fact that it’s just a click away is so exciting. And I think that changes the world. I think too, though, that knowledge has to be actionable. Data isn’t necessarily knowledge unless a person knows how to apply it to their life or their situation. 

That’s the real hope of Be Well for Life. We hope it’s a kernel, and takes them on their own curious journey to know more. 

Learn more at Liberty Mutual’s Be Well for Life site.