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What Defines Our Health?

happy national health education week!

When I found out that health education is celebrated from October 18-22, I knew I had to incorporate some special blog posts into my schedule!  Being a public health major, I’m kind of nerding out right now, so be prepared for that this whole week. (; I’m SO pumped to get to share some valuable health information with you all!  Who’s ready to learn?!

In honor of the first day of Health Education Week, I decided to write about my current favorite topic in public health – determinants of health.  Many people think health is a relatively straightforward concept, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Health is incredibly complex, and it’s something that’s influenced by so many things in our lives.  Nothing in life – especially the concept of health – is black and white, so let’s take a dive into this topic and find out the answer to the age-old question: What defines our health?

**All of the information I’m about to share is either from my current public health class, determinantsofhealth.org, or just general knowledge being housed in my brain. (:

determinants of health

There are usually 5 main categories of things that determine our overall health: individual behavior, social circumstances, genetics and biology, medical care, and physical environment.  Each of these categories houses a number of more specific things that affect our health, which we’ll get into later.  

One of the most fascinating facts about these determinants (at least to me) is that they don’t influence our health status to the same degree.  Each of these categories has a different level of impact on our health, and the severity of each one’s impact might surprise you – I know it surprised me!

individual behavior

Do you know how much of an influence our individual behavior has on our health?  Take a wild guess.  

THIRTY-SIX PERCENT.  36% of our overall health is decided based on our individual behaviors.  Did that surprise you at all?  

Want to know something even more surprising?  This is the single most influential determinant of health.  Our individual behaviors have more of an impact on our health than anything else.  That doesn’t mean this is the only thing that matters – clearly, since it only affects us 36% – but it’s still super important, especially because our behaviors are something we can control!  

As you might expect, this category of individual behavior covers a LOT of examples, such as smoking habits, alcohol and drug use, the foods we eat, our exercise routines, and sleep (quality AND quantity).  Individual behavior is also related to risk-taking, such as our sexual activity, and gun and vehicle behavior; the more risks we take in these sorts of scenarios, the more likely it is that our health will take a toll.  

Some other items that fall under individual behavior, which we surprising to me, were things that relate more to our mental health.  A few examples are how optimistic we are, how satisfied we are with life, our stress and anxiety levels, and depression and hopelessness.  These mental health issues are often more difficult to take into our own hands – as opposed to something like our exercise routine – since they can be heavily influenced by genetics, but there are definitely steps we can take to improve our mental health.  

Now that you know that individual behavior is the largest driving force influencing our overall health status, do you feel more inclined to pay closer attention to the choices you’re making?

If so, here are some things you can do to increase your chances of living a healthy life! (:

  • exercise regularly
  • drink plenty of water
  • choose foods that nourish your body – mentally and physically
  • rest when you need to
  • get high-quality sleep
  • avoid smoking, drugs, and alcohol (at least keep them at a minimum)
  • practice safe sex
  • pay attention to your mental health

There are MANY other behaviors you can implement in your life to improve your health, but these are just a few ideas to get you started. (:

social circumstances

Now that you know how much our individual behaviors influence our health, guess what kind of impact social circumstances have on us…

24%.  TWENTY-FOUR PERCENT!  Nearly a quarter of our health is dependent upon our social circumstances!  Isn’t that wild?!

Unlike the individual behavior category, social circumstances covers a lot of things we can’t control, such as race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, discrimination against us, and the environment we were raised in.  However, there are some things we can control that fall under this category.  For example, our participation in the community and how strongly we are tied to our religion, culture, or family can affect our health and well-being.

Even though there are some things we have more control over in this category, the ones we don’t have control over are often the ones that are more influential on our long-term health.  The most obvious to me is income level because this determines so many other things within our lives.  If you or your family is living on very little income, it’s going to be difficult to get high-quality medical care, nutritious groceries, and more.  The amount of money and kind of job the head(s) of the household are working also determines how much time they must spend at work, which influences how much time they are able to spend at home with their children – if they have any.

Education also falls under the category of social circumstances and is often thought of as one of the single-most influential things for our long-term health.  There have been multiple studies that have shown the relationship between education level and its effects on health, and the results are astounding.  The more education someone has, the longer they are likely to live –  why is this true?  Because education is the fastest route to a well-paying job, which can improve your health is ways mentioned above.  Education is important for everyone, but it can have an especially big impact on women – especially in areas of the world where women are severely oppressed.  

Long story short, there are SO many things that fall under the social circumstances category that influence our health and well-being.  And unfortunately, many of them are difficult – or entirely impossible – to control.  However, some things we can do are encourage everyone to become more educated (especially young women), as well as find ways to help those who are marginalized for any number of reasons.  Whether that’s on a small or large-scale is up to you, but it will make a difference no matter what. (:

genetics and biology

This one should be interesting… how much of our health is decided by our genetics and general biology?

TWENTY-TWO PERCENT!  22% of our health is dependent on our genetics and biology – things we don’t really have control over.  A little over one-fifth of our health is virtually out of our control!!

Here are just a few examples of the things that fall under the control of our genetics: weight, height, waist-hip ratio, biochemical function, strength, bone density, blood pressure, and more.  Of course, some of these things we can gain control over, but only to a certain extent.  

We might change our behaviors in the hopes that they have an impact on our weight, blood pressure, strength, or other things – and this can work sometimes – but we must remember that these things aren’t completely under our control.  

I think the impact of genetics on our health is really important to remember when thinking about weight and body proportions because often times, people think we are in total control of our weight and what our bodies look like.  Spoiler alert: WE AREN’T!  Our bodies have a natural size and shape (determined by genetics), and they’re going to work hard to preserve that body type to keep us healthy.  

All in all, don’t forget that your genetics play a part in many of the things that we are often told we have complete control over. (:

medical care

How much of an influence does medical care have on our health?

ELEVEN percent!  The medical care we receive has an 11% influence on our overall health!  And do you know what has an ENORMOUS influence on the medical care we receive?  Our social circumstances – more specifically, money.

While medical care has only a small fraction of an impact on our overall health, it’s still important to talk about.  ESPECIALLY because the lack of access to care is a huge problem for many.  

Insurance, distance to a provider, availability, and more are all potential obstacles for someone in need of medical attention.  Unfortunately, these obstacles hit the hardest for those who are already at an advantage in terms of their personal health and well-being.  Thus, we have the never-ending cycle starting up again.  Those that are already disadvantaged become more disadvantaged.

Luckily, there are some things that can help curb this issue, if ever so slightly.  Insurance coverage for those in need, through programs like Medicaid and Medicare, can be helpful.  More medical establishments opening up in rural locations, or medical professionals going out to these more remote areas to treat patients, can also be very beneficial for those who can’t easily travel to a nearby hospital or doctor’s office.

physical environment

Some of the things that fall under this category are tobacco exposure, air and water quality, exposure to carcinogens, crime level, job and education opportunities, walkability, and allergens. 

While these don’t have a very large impact on our health, they’re still important to consider when thinking about our overall well-being.  Many of the items listed above can cause issues that we commonly see today, such as asthma, cancer, and allergies of all sorts.  

Crime and access to jobs and schooling are also incredibly important, as was briefly discussed above.  

As you can tell, there are SO many things – big and small – that impact our health.  It’s in our best interest – and the interest of protecting those around us – that we strive to make improvements in the ways in which we promote general health and well-being.  A good place to start would be educating others on the aspects of our health we have control over – and what we can do in order to make simple, life-changing decisions that improve our long-term health.

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