What Is Health?

Health is a state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. It is a complex concept, reflecting the individual’s ongoing ability to adapt to their environment. It includes an individual’s ability to realize aspirations and satisfy needs, to cope with stress and to develop a sense of fulfillment. It also involves the community in which they live and work, including the quality of their relationships and the economic and physical environment.

The World Health Organization has defined the term health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or ill-health.” This definition, first articulated in 1948, has guided WHO’s work ever since. It underlines the importance of a holistic approach to health and wellness, which is essential for achieving the full potential of human life.

There are many different definitions of health and they reflect the cultural and political context in which they are created and used. Some definitions are more behavioural, relating to an individual’s ability to function and interact with their environment and others are more biological, focused on an individual’s physical condition. There is also a growing recognition that health is not just about the absence of disease, but encompasses the presence of life-enhancing factors and the ability to adapt to change.

A common perception of health is that it is the result of good luck, family history or lifestyle choices. People often believe that if they smoke, drink alcohol excessively, have an unhealthy diet or do not exercise, they are at risk of developing illness. However, this view of health is flawed. The fact is that there are a wide variety of risk factors for many diseases, and most of them can be prevented with simple steps such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, not drinking excessively and not using unprotected sex.

Genetics play a key role in most health conditions, but it is also true that the environment can affect a person’s genetic predisposition to certain diseases. For example, certain illnesses may be triggered by environmental factors such as an infection or exposure to toxic substances.

A large body of research has shown that there is a strong link between an individual’s health and the circumstances in which they grow up, live, learn, work and play. These are known as the social determinants of health and include factors such as income, education, employment, housing, neighbourhood and the availability of healthcare, all of which can have both positive and negative effects on an individual’s health. A lack of access to affordable healthcare is one of the biggest contributors to health inequalities between and within countries.