What does it mean to be healthy?

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With a recent upsurge in the prevalence of obesity, heart disease, and other lifestyle-related conditions, it raises the question – what does it actually mean to be healthy?

It is apparent that for most people most of the time, having a disease precludes being healthy. But where is the line drawn? This is a question which medical professionals and philosophers alike have mulled over for centuries.

In this article I will provide a brief summary of some of the more common definitions.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) Definition of Health

The WHO defines health as “complete physical, mental, and social well-being – and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

Under this definition I would think that not many people at all are actually healthy – even in the wealthiest countries. Many people in the modern world, even in the comparatively privileged west, experience at minimum periods of time in which their health suffers under this definition.

Consider if a person’s loved one died, or they have a stressful workplace – does that person then count as unhealthy?

In comparison to the WHO, research from 2016 by Danielle Boles and her colleagues showed that the American public overwhelmingly define health as the absence of illness – a much narrower definition.

Under this definition, only a medical professional can declare a person healthy or not. And interestingly, as science advances and new discoveries are made, people may be declared unhealthy tomorrow who were declared healthy yesterday.

It is also possible for a person to feel healthy and yet be defined as unhealthy – for instance if they display a symptom of a disease yet have no uncomfortable side effects.

Subjectivity and What It Means to be Healthy

Some people ascribe to the notion that health is subjective. That is, it looks different to different people. Health is simply whether you feel healthy, rather than being based on any external measurement or judgement.

However, this may have certain pitfalls. For example, someone can feel healthy but have, or be contributing to, unknown disease states (or reducing their chances of a healthy future). For instance, someone may have an underlying illness which displays no symptoms.

Similarly, humans are very good at lying to themselves and avoiding proactive measures for several reasons. For instance, I feel healthy but I know that I am not very fit now – should I then exercise or not? Should I force myself to eat healthier foods despite feeling just fine on my current diet?

One interesting consideration in the modern world is that we may not know what true health actually feels like. Especially in physical locations such as cities, we are missing out on much of the world that we evolved in and require for health.

Air pollution is at an all time high, many places are lacking or completely devoid of nature (thought to contribute to health and wellbeing), and many people do not get their daily vitamin D requirements and develop health complications due to long days inside, usually sitting. These are just a few examples of environmental shortcomings that can have an effect on any definition of health that we put forward.

The interesting conclusion of all this is that what we feel as baseline of health may actually be a negative state of health, even if only slightly.

Different Kinds of Health

There are obviously different categories of health. Physical health and mental health are the two most commonly referenced types.

An interesting facet is the crossover and feedback between different categories of health on each other. For instance, the negative social impact of certain conditions (such as physical deformities) and the effect that this can have on mental health, worsening overall health.

Solving the Gap

By defining health we are causing ever more fractionation to occur. Mental health can be split into spiritual health, social health, and individual emotional well-being. Social health might be further broken down into family health, friendship health, and workplace health. This fractionation could go on forever – especially as science discovers previously unthought-of facets.

Another way of defining health could be to picture it as a sort of graph. If we allow the narrower definition of “an absence of disease”, then health would be at 0 on the Y axis, and disease would be negative. Then, we could implement a new term such as flourishing which would go on the positive Y axis. This could include things like higher levels of fitness, an excellent social circle, or great family relations.

Either way, it is apparent that health is resistant to being defined. This resistance may originate in a general lack of understanding of concepts relating to human health, such as consciousness, perception, neurology etc. Otherwise, it may lie in the human tendency to want to reduce things to their most basic components. Perhaps health, like the WHO’s definition, should be viewed as a holistic entity.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.


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