What is health?

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What is health? It’s a simple question – but scientific advances mean the answer is becoming rather more complex.

The World Health Organisation’s founding constitution defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. But this 1940s definition is becoming increasingly outdated in an era of greater understanding of disease at molecular, individual and societal levels.

Given that we now know the important influence of the genome in disease, it’s clear that risk-free well-being is impossible. A 2009 article in The Lancet defined health as the ability of a body to adapt to new threats and infirmities. This is based on the fact that modern science has made huge progress in understanding how diseases work – and discovering new ways to slow or stop them, even though an absence of pathology may not be possible.

Someone with diabetes who manages their condition with medication, for example, is clearly not in a state of complete physical well-being. But does that make them unhealthy? Perhaps health is not a binary ‘all or nothing’ state but rather a spectrum. After all, we experience periods of both good and bad health during our lifetimes.

Today, managing disease – not solely its absence – is the way to a healthy life, particularly as we get older. Having disease and feeling healthy are no longer mutually exclusive. And with ageing populations around the world, perhaps it’s time for a more inclusive definition of health that works for older adults living with – rather than dying from – manageable diseases.

Thanks to medical advances and disease management, the concept of health now encompasses far more than traditional definitions. Each of us is exposed to a unique selection of beneficial and adverse circumstances during our lifetimes. Ultimately, it is how we manage – and adapt to – these circumstances that defines our health status.

That’s why our focus here at Sanome is on combining different types of biomarkers to develop a new generation of faster, more effective diagnostic tests for early detection and prevention of a range of diseases. Now that’s a healthy ambition.