The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of all human beings. It is essential for the full development of individuals and the building of a peaceful and harmonious world.
Health can be understood as an active process of achieving well-being in all aspects of life, not just the absence of disease. The emergence of the health promotion movement in the 1980s ushered in a new conception of health as an ongoing journey rather than an end state. The health promotion paradigm focuses on healthy behaviours that promote mental, physical and social wellbeing.
While the prevailing view of health as an absence of disease is based on the germ theory of illness, many other factors also affect health. These include a person’s education, employment, income, family circumstances and early childhood; housing and working conditions; and their interactions with social support and relationships. Collectively, these factors are known as the social determinants of health and are responsible for many avoidable differences in health outcomes within and between countries (see Commission on Social Determinants of Health 2008).
A more holistic definition of health has long been advocated by those who know that the causes of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and arthritis are complex and often multifactorial. These factors include lifestyle choices such as smoking, alcohol consumption and lack of exercise; genetic predisposition to the disease; environmental exposures; and societal norms and values that place a high value on strength and resilience.
Historically, different concepts of health have been informed by cultural and scientific knowledge, including natural and classical medicine; folk remedies; and religious beliefs and practices. Modern definitions of health are increasingly informed by the social determinants of health and emerging understandings of molecular and individual disease.
The enduring influence of these diverse ideas can be seen in the wide array of definitions of health currently available online. The nature of digital society allows these concepts to co-exist and evolve in the same online environment, without hierarchy or precedence. This syncreticity of past and present categories is referred to as digital anachronism.
Health is a dynamic concept that is constantly evolving. The world’s health challenges are complex and intersecting, but they can be addressed through innovative approaches that incorporate health in all dimensions of our lives. A new way of thinking about health will help us move beyond managing disease to promoting health in all its complexity. This will require an open mind and the courage to embrace change. It will take a collaborative effort involving all stakeholders in re-envisioning our vision for a healthier future. Then we can start making the changes that will make a difference. We owe it to ourselves and the next generation to get our health back on track.