By Danny Yarnall
The very definition of health is up for debate.
PMC scholar Cara Kiernan Fallon and PMC Co-Director Jason Karlawish recently authored editorials for for the American Public Health Journal and STAT that support an update to the definition of human health made seven decades ago at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) inception.
“We thought about the ways current public health initiatives for ‘healthy aging’ reflect a contradiction in terms, and then we turned to the definition of health,” said Fallon, who is also a Bioethics Fellow at UPenn.
The WHO currently describes health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The pair argues as medical science prolongs lifespan and improves quality of life while living with the disease, “healthy” has taken on a new meaning. They recommend the definition be expanded to include noncommunicable disease and special considerations for the elderly, as more than two-thirds of adults 65 or older live with more than two diseases.
“We also need to incorporate early and excellent management of disease as part of health,” the authors wrote for STAT, “managing disease, and not solely its absence, is a means to a healthy life.”
Fallon and Karlawish also emphasize directives aimed at managing disease later in life and increased access to care among the ways national and international organizations can change perceptions around what it means to be healthy.
Fallon joined PMC in 2018 after earning her Ph.D. in Historical Science from Harvard and previously completing her Master’s of Public Health and undergraduate degree in the History of Science and History of Medicine at Yale. Her background as a historian allows her to analyze the ways history informs the trends and problems of today by combining questions about culture, medicine, and science into her research.