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What Americans mean by ‘health’

Shift in thought

The concept of health has expanded rapidly beyond physical well-being, a survey discovers. More people expect health to be mental, even spiritual. Many industries, such as hotels and hospitals, are responding. 

Gene McGuire, center, poses with Babe's Chicken Dinner House restaurant employees in Arlington, Texas. McGuire says he has found redemption working as a chaplain for the employees at the restaurants throughout North Texas.
Maria Chiu/Star-Telegram via AP
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Are you healthy?

The question isn’t so simple anymore, according to a survey of more than 1,000 Americans by the marketing firm J. Walter Thompson.

The survey, released Wednesday, found that rapid scientific advances and other trends have expanded the understanding of health to the point that people now say it involves more than a medical perspective. The poll found nearly an equal number of Americans – more than 3 out of 4 – associate health as a mental condition as well as a physical one. Nearly half said being mindful is a form of health.

One of the survey’s surprises is that relatively few people (17 percent) reach for prescription medicines when they feel ill. And about half prefer a nonmedical approach to an ailment. Younger people are much more inclined to prefer a nonmedical method than older people.

People also are taking greater command of their health as their concepts of health evolve, the survey found. They are more careful of who or what they trust about their health. “The more we learn about health, the more it seems that health involves everything,” the researchers conclude.

One result of this shift in thinking is that many industries, from hotels to landscape architects, see themselves in the “wellness” business. They provide “restorative environments” or “mood-aligning” experiences. The definition of health care keeps expanding far beyond traditional medicine.

More hospitals, for example, are offering spiritual care to patients beyond simply providing access to a chaplain for end-of-life discussions. In a recent experiment at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, for example, researchers provided patients who could not speak with images that depict a possible spiritual need, such as prayer or poetry. The patients could select one and also indicate the extent of their need. Then the spiritual help was given. The result was a sharp rise in patients feeling “more at peace” or “more connected with what is sacred,” according to the study.

The study was seen as a test of spiritual care “as if it were a new medicine.” That result helps reinforce the findings of the survey. So next time you ask someone “Are you healthy?,” prepare for an unexpected answer.