The Health Culture: Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

Health used to be something we were born with, not something we could personally control. Today most people in Western countries assume they can avoid certain diseases and prolong their lives by practicing a “healthy lifestyle.” How did this happen? Exactly when did this change occur? What does it mean today to be so preoccupied with health? And how will we feel about our health tomorrow when consumer gene-testing services are available for $59.95? My intent for this blog is to explore issues related to the modern health culture.

A pronounced shift in health awareness started in the 1970s. What led up to this change, and what happened subsequently, is a complex web of scientific, economic, social, and political factors. The details of what happened include the rise of clinical research and epidemiology, the medicalization of conditions previously considered normal, a change in the doctor/patient relationship, the enormous role of the pharmaceutical industry in matters of health, changes in our experience of aging and death, the commercialization of self-help products and advice, public relations and advertising as primary sources of medical information, and a heightened sense of overall risk, among many other things.

Certainly there are benefits to increased health awareness. People know that smoking causes lung cancer, and they can choose not to smoke. But there are definite downsides. Many people become unnecessarily anxious about their health and fitness. Formerly pleasurable activities become a source of guilt, sometimes quite unnecessarily. Strict adherence to a “healthy lifestyle” can become a source of obnoxious moral superiority.

Unquestionably there have been advances in medical technology. But are we really better off knowing we are “at risk” of developing a disease that will have no impact on our longevity? Were we better off following the advice of experts who recommended a low-fat diet, even though it produced weight gain and lacked the support of scientific evidence? When does increased concern with health serve the interests of individuals and the common good of society and when does it serve the economic or ideological interests of specific segments of society – the media, the pharmaceutical industry, insurance companies, the food industry, politicians?

These are questions I’d like to consider in this blog. My objective is to shine a light on the health culture: When did it happen, how did it happen, what can we learn from it. In the process of exploring this subject I hope to address the question: How can we be objectively well informed about matters of health without being overwhelmed by an overabundance of health and fitness messages?

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