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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

The factors influencing health

If you’ve ever questioned why we spend so much time harping on sleep, nutrition, exercise, and stress management, our hope is that this discussion will serve as an explanation. There’s a lot that goes into how long someone will live and what their quality of life will be, but we can essentially place these contributors into four categories. These are health care, social and environmental factors, individual behavior, and genetics.

I initially chose to go into medicine because I was certain that health care had the biggest impact on this overall picture. My guess would be that most of the population thinks the same. Receiving the newest medicines, getting care from the best doctors, and having access to the most advanced medical technology surely must help one to live longer. The reality is that these things do contribute to health, but only to a limited extent. Their impact is dwarfed by the influence of the boring “lifestyle factors” that we discuss so often.

The contribution of each of the four categories is summarized in Figure 1 from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Whereas health care accounts for about 10% of lifespan, individual behavior is approximately four times as impactful. Nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress management all fit primarily within this category.

Figure 1: The weighting of different factors as they contribute to the risk of premature death.

Genetics also compose a large chunk of the chart, but this is one that is largely out of your control. Having a thorough understanding of your family history and getting your genome sequenced can be valuable, and the presence of a high-risk variant can inform lifestyle and treatment decisions. That being said, the DNA sequence itself is something you simply can’t change at the moment. Perhaps Ryan’s research on CRISPR gene-editing technology will help change that in the next few decades.

Social and environmental factors — accounting for one-fifth of premature death risk — are modifiable, but are impacted more by systems than individual actions. Perhaps the main thing you can focus on here is your social support system. It is immensely important to have valuable relationships, and any effort given to these relationships is effort well-spent. As one example of how these categories blur together, social support is closely related to stress relief, access to healthcare, and several of the other elements of health.

The bottom line is that all of these factors are important, and none of them should be ignored. We’ll continue to talk about groundbreaking treatments and healthcare access, because for some people they do make a substantial difference. We’ll keep hoping that one day we can actually modify our genetics, and in the meantime we’ll write about everything you can do to work with the DNA you were given. We’ll debate the best policies for the health of our entire population, and dedicate time to the social and environmental measures within our control as individuals and communities.

The greatest influence on lifespan and quality of life, however, comes down to individual behaviors. Fortunately, this is also the category each of us has the most control over. Our goal is to allow you to be as well-informed as possible when making these impactful decisions.


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