It is common sense. The body affects the mind; the mind affects the body. But medical science is not a field built on instinct or conjecture, and the variables that need to be isolated in order to support even the simplest causal relationships between mental and physical health are daunting.
Time, perhaps, to treat the connection as a basic assumption, rather than as something that must be proved over and over again. Time to acknowledge that the epidemics of our age may be caused by the impacts of stress, overwork, depression, and malaise as easily as they are caused by a pathogen coded in our genes or the toxins in our blood. The way you breathe, sleep, eat, and digest food. The way you sit at your computer, speak to your kids, and raise your heart rate. How often you smile, make love, sing. That is where health begins.
But we know it doesn’t end there. Many of you reading this paper are working in one of our major health systems. You’ve seen the miracles and the tragedies, treated the everyday ills, and felt the technology improve in your hands. You’ve experienced the pressures of time and money, witnessed how confusion impacts patients. On good days, you’ve seen the smiles of gratitude and relief that come when someone gets healthy after being sick. Radical advances in biotechnology mean that we have the most specific views of the human body we’ve ever had. Today we can actually track not just the genes, but the chemical tags that make up their on and off switches. How can we use all of this knowledge to become a healthier society?
This year’s health issue cannot touch all of the amazing work being done locally in the medical and health professions. We’ve highlighted, instead, a few efforts that focus on improving the lives of patients and caregivers by addressing the connection between their mental and emotional well-being and the treatment they give and receive. A man who literally turned his life around by eating better. Nurses who can cry. Counseling for patients with diabetes.
We’ve also got proof of why this matters. The hot-off-the-presses Thomas Jefferson Health District’s Community Health Assessment offers us a record of where we are. Why, in 2013, should African Americans in our city have a radically higher infant mortality rate and a significantly shorter life expectancy than any other group? What would Dr. King say about that?