Expanding the Way We Think About Health
Canada spent over $180 billion dollars on health care in 2009. So why don’t all Canadians have similar chances of having a long healthy life?
Health starts in our homes, schools and communities. It is critical than everyone can see a doctor when they are sick and everyone needs to be able to access preventive care easily―things like screening for cancer and heart disease. But we also need to stop thinking of health as something we get at the doctor’s office. Health starts in our families, in our schools and workplaces, in our playgrounds and parks, and in the air we breathe and the water we drink. The more you see the problem of health this way, the more opportunities you have to improve it. The evidence shows the conditions in which we live and work have a big impact on our health, long before we see a doctor. It’s time we expand the way we think about health to include how to keep it, not just how to get it back.
Simply put, the brain is an environmentally sensitive organ. It requires specific sensory input at particular times in order to develop pathways, and the richer the stimulation, the richer the resulting connections. Children in nurturing environments develop more neural pathways, synapses and dendrites. Further, the stress hormone cortisol, produced in situations of neglect, fear, and deprivation, damages several parts of the brain, including the major site of memory and learning. The wiring of bad pathways can, without intervention, stay with a child throughout life.
Not being able to afford the basics, cycles of violence and abuse, and poor education take their toll on young bodies and young minds. The effects of stressful adverse experiences can take years to show themselves, but when they do they often show up as disease. At risk children become at risk adults who carry mental illness, disability, and premature death with them into adulthood.
Current models of health promotion, disease prevention, and health policy focus on promoting healthy behaviours and trying to change damaging behaviours in adults. Mounting scientific evidence suggests the effects of these strategies may be limited. It’s time to expand the way we think about health to include how to keep it, not just how to get it back.