Can change kill you?


Major changes in your life can make you ill.

Via Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom:

One simple test developed by Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe more than forty years ago can predict the likelihood of illness according to the number of changes a person has undergone in the last six to twenty-four months — such things as marriage, the birth of a child, divorce, the loss of a job, and financial setbacks. The illnesses range from major ones such as heart attacks (the most obvious) and cancer (the least obvious) to minor ones such as the common cold. In studying more than 5000 cases, Holmes and Rahe discovered that people who had led more turbulent lives were more likely to become ill than those with calm, ordered lives. The more severe the change, the more likely the person was to fall ill.

The model is so powerful it’s been used predictively by the US Navy:

Based on the number of life changes, the researchers were able to predict which personnel would experience the most sicknesses during deployment at sea – including relatively minor illnesses such as colds.


Though the probabilities vary for different diseases and from study to study, all of the researchers reached the same conclusion. A number of life changes in a short period of time increases the risk for illness. The magnitude of the changes is highly related to how soon disease occurs and how serious it is.

Before you say “That’s not surprising; bad things cause stress and that can lead to illness!” remember that it wasn’t just bad changes that were measured:

What may be less obvious is that the change does not have to be negative. Let’s wave a magic wand and give poor Dave a great year instead of a terrible one. He gets married, receives a promotion that takes him to a new city, buys a new house, develops a new social relationships, and has a child. His joyful emotional experiences give him exactly the same increased risk for illness that his painful experiences would have! Even a wealth of new good things can overwhelm us. We can adapt well to one major change, but a clustering of change leads to problems. The impact is cumulative.

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