Components of Health, Part I

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Health:Further makes a careful distinction between the term “health” and the term “healthcare” — and this is both intentional and really important. “A community focused on the future of health,” says the branding. In addition, one of the company’s core beliefs is that “health is a human right.” It doesn’t say that “healthcare” is a human right, nor does it call itself a community focused on the future of “healthcare.”

Why does this matter? Unexpectedly, it was an English class I took in college that first showed me the importance of this distinction between health and healthcare. “Medicine, Literature, and Culture” involved analyzing literature that depicted medicine, with a focus on cultural context. It turns out that pain, for instance, is not universally experienced. And suffering, I learned, is inherently distinct from pain — it’s pain with no perceived endpoint. How a patient experiences her disease, and whether her given treatment is culturally relevant to her, are incredibly influential in that person’s health. Yes, human biology is generally consistent across borders — but even within the same country, a person’s cultural context has an outsized impact on the effectiveness of how her health and wellness is managed.

So healthcare is not all there is to health. We — members of human society as a whole — need much more than healthcare in order to achieve health. The way I see it, there are at least five building blocks or categories that form the foundation of individual and societal health. These components are influenced, even determined, by other forces including policy and innovation — but if all else were to fall away and we were left with only these five elements, I believe we would all be healthy.

The two most obvious, which are supported by the remaining three blocks, are physical and mental health. These overlap significantly but can be examined separately. Most of my readers know that physical health includes exercise, which affects muscle mass and bone density, and nutrition, which supplies the body with the molecular ingredients it needs to build said muscle and complete all its myriad miraculous internal functions. Physical health also obviously includes the state of lacking disease or injury — or at least having disease or injury properly managed so that it causes minimal limitations to that individual’s life. Mental health, on the other hand, is not as easy to measure and is less often examined — but no less important. Mental health includes emotional health (the ability to regulate one’s own emotions, for example stress management). It’s sometimes correlated with exposure to or involvement with the arts. It’s directly influenced by one’s physical health and can likewise be improved through exercise, nutrition, and sleep. It’s connected to self-care: knowing and acting on what one’s own body and mind need to feel complete.

Isn’t that it? You might ask at this point. Physical health and mental health. Exercise, nutrition, and sleep. That’s what it takes to be healthy.

But I want to unpack those two basic components a little further. Prescribing vegetables and exercise to an overweight person doesn’t usually result in weight loss. Why is that? Humans are not machines with simple inputs and outputs; we’re complicated creatures who need the alignment of a wide range of incentives and opportunities in order to make healthy choices.

To learn what other elements of “health” this writer considers necessary, check out “Components of Health, Part II