In the United States, health has often been viewed as a relatively passive concept, used mostly to describe the avoidance of physical illness. In much of the world, health is considered a complicated, intricate process influenced by culture and ethnicity. Despite this complexity, however, health and well-being continue to be the most common positive outcomes of civil societies.
Health, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is “an entire system of prevention, care and treatment designed to ensure the best quality of life and reduce the risk of mortality and disability”. Numerous definitions have been employed over the years for defining health. The traditions that shaped our ideas about health span many cultures and have roots in the biological, social, and emotional causes of human life. These include natural causes such as inherited genes and geographic isolation, as well as contemporary environmental stresses. The goal of public health, as it relates to managing disease and illness, should be to promote health on the whole through an integrated approach that takes into account the life course work of individuals from birth through death.
The life course approach is based on the notion that health is normally brought about by experiences over the course of life, and that certain events or conditions signal certain risk or threat and therefore must be managed or avoided. In addition, the life course approach considers the influence of social determinants on health, especially the social determinants associated with age, gender, community or place of residence, education, occupational class, and so on. This view emphasizes the importance of healthy people living productive and healthy lives in and around the public health system. These public health determinants also affect health via the determinants they shape – factors that are internal and external to a person’s body, mind and society.
Effective public health also requires the active involvement of the broad range of individuals and communities that make up our society. Public health programs that address health issues in the communities need to address the complex patterns of causality, which often go beyond income and occupational status. Such programs also help communities develop sustainable systems for providing quality health care, emphasizing prevention as the basis for improving health and preventing morbidity and disability.
In improving health and extending the life expectancy of the population, there is a need to focus on lifestyle changes and habits that lead to overall wellness and physical well-being. A good example is the decrease in smoking prevalence in recent years. Although smoking prevalence may decline naturally over time, there has been a marked decrease in its rate since the mid 1990s. This decrease in smoking prevalence has helped reduce overall morbidity and disability due to diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
It is important for health policy makers to consider the influences of environment, population, culture, housing and diet on health status and life expectancy of older adults. The promotion of a healthy lifestyle through policies such as the promotion of physical education, promoting healthy diets and regular exercise, and encouraging healthy activity will have the greatest impact on maintaining healthy life expectancy. There is also an urgent need to increase public awareness of chronic conditions, the highest risk factors for age-related diseases, and the best approaches to prevent and treat these conditions. A multi-dimensional public health program including interventions targeting the different risk factors and promoting healthy lifestyle will yield the greatest results in the reduction of morbidity and disability caused by diseases, while extending life expectancy.