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We typically spend the early part of our lives developing habits but then spend the latter part of our lives controlled by those habits. This was the point of view expressed by a senior dental insurance executive I spoke with at a holiday party a few weeks ago. He was talking about how older dentists often have a great deal of trouble managing their professional practices in light of new technologies and ways of doing things now (e.g., using social media for advertising). He spoke of thriving dental practices that were now dying since “old dogs have trouble learning new tricks.”
As I have thought more and more about this cocktail party conversation I think he was really “spot on.” Observing my colleagues in psychology, the academic community in general, many of my clinical psychotherapy patients, and so forth, this wise observation seems to be true indeed. For example, an older patient in my clinical practice has a long time habit of enjoying a “happy hour” with her husband each night. They have a good marital relationship many decades and have developed the habit of having a few drinks before dinner each evening starting at 5pm. However, the amount of alcohol consumed is concerning since she admits that her two drinks each night includes 4 ounces of “the hard stuff.” That’s what she admits to, but it could be more (people are notorious for underestimating their alcohol consumption). Health guidelines for women published by the National Institute of Health suggest no more than 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol for women each day (or 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine). After a recent bout of chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer she claims that alcohol no longer tastes good to her but she drinks the same amount each day regardless stating that it is a habit that she developed over the years and she isn’t willing to change now. When confronted with the research evidence of the potential risk that too much alcohol contributes to cancer, she shrugs.