What Does It Mean to Be Healthy, Anyway?

The search for answers often leads to more questions. Notes from Spotlight Health.

Even if a perfect working knowledge of the human body and brain were bestowed on us tomorrow, there would still be unknowns in the realm of health. Outbreaks and evolving bacteria. How to get people the care they need. What new health threats will be brought on by the changing climate. These are some of the topics being discussed at the Aspen Ideas Festival’s Spotlight Health session, Thursday through Sunday. And plenty of questions about the mind and body too, since our knowledge, though much improved from the days of bloodletting and accusing every woman of hysteria, is hardly complete.

“How to be healthy” is one of life’s big questions, and it can be taken a lot of different ways. It can mean, “How do I extend the shelf life of this meat sack I inhabit for as long as possible?” It can mean, “How do I kill this organism that’s trying to kill me?” Or it can mean, “How do I get through this one day with my sanity and my sense of self intact?” Sometimes I think it just means, “How can I be okay with not having these answers?”

That’s the invigorating and frustrating thing about covering health—we’re always in the middle of the process. Discoveries are made and unmade, remedies proved and unproved, theories floated then forgotten. Scientists crack one nut, and then another one falls on their heads.

I think people are drawn to read about and talk about health with the opposite hope. They want clarity. I can give you clarity on a few things: Eat vegetables. Get vaccinated. Wear sunscreen. But you know those things already. Even with the harder stuff, where things are less clear—Alzheimer’s, addiction, deep-rooted systemic inequalities—the hook that keeps pulling me through the fog is that progress is possible. It must be. Almost no one talks about bilious humors anymore. The learning process is hard, and slow, and often circuitous, but we do learn.

There’s a mountain of knowledge out there that we’re slowly mining, and buried within it are some answers. There are ways to be better prepared for the next Ebola outbreak. There is something—or things—that cause Alzheimer’s, even if we don’t completely understand them yet. But for “how to be healthy?” We can tell you what we know for sure. We can tell you what we’re sure we don’t know. We can tell you what needs more research, and what works for some people but not others. And then hopefully at some point you’ll feel at least informed enough to decide what the question means to you.