The English word “health” comes from the Old English word hale, meaning “wholeness, a being whole, sound or well,”. Hale comes from the Proto-Indo-European root kailo, meaning “whole, uninjured, of good omen”. Kailo comes from the Proto-Germanic root khalbas, meaning “something divided”. Medilexicon’s medical dictionary has three definitions for health, the first being “The state of the organism when it functions optimally without evidence of disease or abnormality” (click hereto read the other two).
World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) definition of “health”
The most famous modern definition of health was created during a Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June, 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948.
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
The Definition has not been amended since 1948.
During the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion in 1986, the WHO said that health is:
“a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. Health is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities.”
The Lancet questions WHO’s definition of health
An article in The Lancet states that health is not a “state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being”. Neither is it “merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. The article says the WHO definitions of health will not do in an era marked by new understandings of disease at molecular, individual, and societal levels. (The Lancet, Volume 373, Issue 9666, Page 781, 7 March 2009).
Two aspects to health
“There are some remedies worse than the disease.”
“We must turn to nature itself, to the observations of the body in health and in disease to learn the truth.”
“Take care of your body with steadfast fidelity. The soul must see through these eyes alone, and if they are dim, the whole world is clouded.”
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
“I am convinced digestion is the great secret to life.”
“Nature, time and patience are three great physicians.”
“Our own physical body possesses a wisdom which we who inhabit the body lack. We give it orders which make no sense.”
“Time is the great physician.”
“A man too busy to take care of his health is like a mechanic too busy to take care of his tools.”
“I am dying with the help of too many physicians.”
Alexander the Great
“God heals, and the doctor takes the fee.”
“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.”
“Time is the great physician.”
“The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.”
“Water, air, and cleanliness are the chief articles in my pharmacopoeia.”
“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.”
“A wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings, and learn how by his own thought to derive benefit from his illnesses.”
“Attention to health is life’s greatest hindrance.”
“As you improve health in a society, population growth goes down. You know, I thought it was… before I learned about it, I thought it was paradoxical.”
“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.”
“The devil has put a penalty on all things we enjoy in life. Either we suffer in health or we suffer in soul or we get fat.”
Most people accept that health can be divided into two broad aspects – physical and mental health.
- Physical health
For humans, physical health means a good body health, which is healthy because of regular physical activity (exercise), good nutrition, and adequate rest.
As a country’s or region’s people experience improved nutrition, health care, standards of living and quality of life, their height and weight generally increase.
In fact, most people, when asked for a definition of health talk about physical health. Physical health relates to anything concerning our bodies as physical entities. Physical health has been the basis for active living campaigns and the many nutrition drives that have swept the industrialized world. People are exposed to so much “physical health” data these days that it is hard to decide what is relevant and what is not.
Another term for physical health is physical wellbeing. Physical wellbeing is defined as something a person can achieve by developing all health-related components of his/her lifestyle. Fitness reflects a person’s cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, and body composition. Other contributors to physical wellbeing may include proper nutrition, bodyweight management, abstaining from drug abuse, avoiding alcohol abuse, responsible sexual behavior (sexual health), hygiene, and getting the right amount of sleep.
- Mental health
Mental health refers to people’s cognitive and emotional well-being. A person who enjoys good mental health does not have a mental disorder. According to WHO, mental health is “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.
No matter how many definitions people try to come up with regarding mental health, its assessment is still a subjective one.
People have always found it easier to explain what mental illness is, rather than mental health. Most people agree that mental health refers to the “absence of mental illness”. For some, this definition is not enough. They argue that if you pick 100 people who do not suffer from any mental disorder or illness that could be diagnosed by a psychiatrist, some people within those 100 will be mentally healthier than others. Most people also agree that mental health includes the ability to enjoy life, the ability to bounce back from adversity, the ability to achieve balance (moderation), the ability to be flexible and adapt, the ability to feel safe and secure, and self-actualization (making the best of what you have).
Determinants of health
The health of individual people and their communities are affected by a wide range of contributory factors. People’s good or bad health is determined by their environment and situations – what is happening and what has happened to them, says WHO. WHO says that the following factors probably have a bigger impact on our health than access and use of health care services:
- Where we live
- The state of our environment
- Our income
- Our education level
- Our relationship with friends and family
WHO says the main determinants to health are:
- Our economy and society (“The social and economic environment”)
- Where we live, what is physically around us (“The physical environment”)
- What we are and what we do (“The person’s individual characteristics and behaviors”)
As our good health depends on the context of our lives, praising or criticizing people for their good or bad health is wrong. Most of the factors that contribute towards our good or bad health are out of our control. According to WHO, these factors (determinants), include the following, among others:
- Socioeconomic status – the higher a person’s socioeconomic status is, the more likely he/she is to enjoy good health. The link is a clear one. Socioeconomic status affects all members of the family, including newborn babies. An Australian study found that women of lower socioeconomic status are less likely to breastfeed their newborn babies – a factor which will have an impact on the health of the baby just as he/she enters the world. A South Korean study revealed a clear link between low socioeconomic status and heart attack and stroke risk.
- Education – people with lower levels of education generally have a higher risk of experiencing poorer health. Their levels of stress will most likely be higher, compared to people with higher academic qualifications. A person with a high level of education will probably have higher self-esteem. A study carried out by researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, found that elderly people who had a higher level of health literacy were more likely to live longer. Another study from San Francisco VA Medical Center found that Literacy at less than a ninth-grade level almost doubles the five-year risk of mortality among elderly people.
- Physical environment – if your water is clean and safe, the air you breathe is pure, your workplace is healthy, your house is comfortable and safe, you are more likely to enjoy good health compared to somebody whose water supply is not clean and safe, the air he/she breathes is contaminated, the workplace is unhealthy, etc. A study carried out by researchers at Zuyd University, The Netherlands, found that just an hour of sniffing car exhaust fumes induces a stress response in the brain’s activity. Another study carried out at Indiana University-Purdue University found that chronic lead poisoning, caused in part by the ingestion of contaminated dirt, affects hundreds of thousands more children in the United States than the acute lead poisoning associated with imported toys or jewelry.
- Job prospects and employment conditions – if you have a job, statistics show you are more likely to enjoy better health than people who are unemployed. If you have some control over your working conditions your health will benefit too. A study by researchers at State University of New York at Albany found that workers who lost their job through no fault of their own were twice as likely as continuously employed workers to report over the next 18 months that they developed a new illness, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease.
- Support from people around you – if you have family support, as well as support from friends and your community your chances of enjoying good health are far greater than somebody who has none of these things. A study carried out at the University of Washington found that strong family support, not peer support, is protective in reducing future suicidal behavior among young adults when they have experienced depression or have attempted suicide.
- Culture – the traditions and customs of a society and how a family responds to them play an important role in people’s health. The impact could be either good or bad for health. The tradition of genital mutilation of women has an impact on infection rates and the mental health of millions of girls and women in many countries. A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that when young people dress according to the customs of their own ethnic group, they may be less likely to have mental health problems later in life.
- Genetic inheritance – people’s longevity, general health, and propensity to certain diseases are partly determined by their genetic makeup. Researchers from Vrije Universiteit, Holland, the Medical College of Georgia, USA, and Duke University, USA showed that people’s genes play a key role in how they respond both biologically and psychologically to stress in their environment.
- What we do and how we manage – what we eat, our physical activity, whether or not we smoke or drink or take drugs, and how we cope with stress play an important role on our physical and mental well-being.
- Access and use of health services – a society that has access and uses good quality health services is more likely to enjoy better health than one that doesn’t. For example, developed countries that have universal health care services have longer life expectancies for their people compared to developed countries that don’t.
- Gender – men and women are susceptible to some different diseases, conditions and physical experiences, which play a role in our general health. For example, childbirth, ovarian cancer, and cervical cancer, are experienced only by women, while prostate cancer, testicular cancer are only experienced by men. During wars more men than women tend to be called up to fight, and subsequently become injured or die. Adult women are more likely to be the physical victims of domestic abuse, compared to adult men. In some societies women are not given the same access to education as men – education is a factor that influences health. Many studies have revealed gender disparities in healthcare services, even in developed countries.
What is wellness?
The term wellness was first used by a doctor called Halbert L. Dunn, USA, who published a small booklet entitled “High Level Wellness” in 1961. The term is much more widely used in North American than in the United Kingdom.
According to the Mickinley Health Center, University of Illinois, wellness “is a state of optimal well-being that is oriented toward maximizing an individual’s potential. This is a life-long process of moving towards enhancing your physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and environmental well-being.”
The University of East Carolina defines wellness as “the integration of mind, body and spirit. Optimal wellness allows us to achieve our goals and find meaning and purpose in our lives. Wellness combines seven dimensions of well-being into a quality way of living. Overall, wellness is the ability to live life to the fullest and to maximize personal potential in a variety of ways. Wellness involves continually learning and making changes to enhance your state of wellness. When we balance the physical, intellectual, emotional, social, occupational, spiritual, and environmental aspects of life, we achieve true wellness.”
According to Medilexicon’s medical dictionary, wellness is “A philosophy of life and personal hygiene that views health as not merely the absence of illness but the full realization of one’s physical and mental potential, as achieved through positive attitudes, fitness training, a diet low in fat and high in fiber, and the avoidance of unhealthful practices (smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, overeating)”.
Sources: National Health Service (NHS), UK, The Mayo Clinic, Wikipedia, HHS (Department of Health and Human Services USA), NIH (National Institutes of Health, USA).