What Is Health?

“Your heart will follow your actions.”

– Eliyahu Dessler

Before we begin to discuss various illnesses, we must understand what it means to be healthy. Is health just the lack of sickness or is it something greater? The World Heath Organization defines health as “a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

The Interconnection Of Physical, Mental And Social Health

So what does this mean for you? Practically, in order to have complete health, you must master all three domains. Realistically, few achieve perfection in all areas. However, it is important to recognize that all three areas are interconnected and oscillate together. For instance, people with mental illness often have more physical complaints and poorer social connections than the general population. Those with poor social supports are more likely to develop physical or mental illness. Finally, the physically ill are more likely to be depressed, anxious or alienate others compared to physically healthy individuals. Well, that all sounds pretty gloomy, doesn’t it? If you are stricken in one sphere then you are destined to suffer in the other two domains as well.


On a more positive note, each individual domain of health can have a positive impact on the other areas. A person diagnosed with mental illness can ameliorate their condition by improving diet, becoming more physically active, engaging in more social activities or reconnecting with family. Someone with a physical illness can perform mindfulness exercises and work to increase their social well-being. An individual going through a tough breakup or having difficulty with a family member can work to improve their mental and physical health in order to mitigate their declining social well-being. When done successfully, all of these interventions have been shown to decrease the duration and intensity of the primary diagnoses.



Research Examples- The Power to Improve Each Domain by Strengthening the Others

An Article in The Journal of the American Medical Association by Sheldon Cohen and colleagues  showed a reverse relationship between susceptibility to upper respiratory infections and how strongly people rated their social networks. The more satisfied people were with their social well-being, the less likely they were to get sick. This was true even when subjects were directly exposed to rhinovirus, the predominant cause of the common cold. Those with the strongest social ties were greater than 4 times less likely to get sick compared to those with the weakest social ties. (1)


David Osborne and colleagues found that people without severe mental illness were half as likely to  develop heart disease or cancer compared with those experiencing severe mental illness. This was found even when controlling for the use of psychiatric medications, smoking frequency and social well-being. (2)


Gail and colleagues recently published a longitudinal study examining people’s lifestyles. They considered weight, diet, physical activities, alcohol consumption and smoking habits. At a 5 year follow up, healthy lifestyles were associated with a 22% reduced risk of developing a first episode mood disorder. (3)


Conclusion- By Linking Them Together, We Have the Power to Improve Our Physical, Mental and Social Health.

Ultimately, we have tremendous control over our health no matter what afflicts us. When one aspect of us suffers an injury, it is imperative that we not only treat the primary condition, but increase our efforts to improve the other areas of health as well. Tending to this promptly will avoid further problems and accelerate recovery.


What do you think? Have you experienced the impact of one domain of health on another? Share your comments and questions below.


(1) Association between health and social ties

(2) Connection between Mental Illness and Physical Disease

(3) Link between Physical Health and Mental Illness

Ariel Mintz, MD
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