Source: Miguel Á. Padriñán/Pexels
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” If you think about it, this definition sets the bar pretty high, as it would immediately disqualify many Americans.
For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41.9 percent of adults in the United States were obese as of March 2020, and obesity is just one medical condition. If you exclude individuals with high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, or psychiatric disorders, the pool of “healthy” people becomes even smaller.
Even if you were the most health-conscious person in the world–exercising, experiencing zero stress, getting lots of sleep, and eating a balanced diet–health is temporary. No matter what we do, our body and mind will eventually break down and cease to function. And yet, we have a tendency to think of health and youth as the normative state of being.
(As a short aside, I blame this partly on the fact that the 18-to-34-year-old demographic has been the most prized age bracket among American advertisers for decades. So when we are bombarded with commercials and media depicting young people enjoying their best lives—telling us, “Look at these beautiful people; don’t you want to be/stay like them?”—then it’s no wonder that we want to see ourselves reflected in these glorified images.)
This faulty belief makes us overestimate our own health. A 2009 study found that many Americans wrongly believe that they are healthier than they actually are. For example, among obese participants, 68 percent believed that they were healthy or healthier than the average person, and among tobacco smokers, 85 percent believed that they were healthier than the norm.
I argue that we should start thinking of health as a temporary state that requires constant effort to maintain, with the goal of prolonging this period as long as possible. This shift in perspective will require drastic changes in our personal habits, public education, commercialization of food, and government resources for families and communities. But in doing so, we would allow more people to live longer and enjoy a higher quality of life.
Once we understand this, we will also realize that one day, we will all suffer a decline in our health (and if not, that would mean that you had died relatively young). This would push society to prepare for the inevitable by increasing accessibility for those with different abilities.
For example, we would be more motivated to create kinder, more humane, and more effective care options for our elderly citizens and others who cannot take care of themselves, understanding that many of us will eventually benefit from these changes. More broadly, we would develop a number of accessibility solutions through technological, medical, and policy innovations, allowing everyone to live more fully.
Understanding health as a temporary state would also prompt us to contemplate our own deaths and the deaths of our loved ones. We would make better plans to prevent prolonged suffering at the end of our lives. If we spend more time preparing for the inevitable, perhaps death would feel a little less scary, knowing that we had done our best to sort things out before leaving.
Acknowledging the transience of our health would have profound implications for society and our personal health. We would be more encouraged to maintain healthy habits, create more accessible solutions, and prepare for our eventual end, allowing us to live healthier, more able, and fuller lives.