I defined health as having a fully functioning body and mind, but also think of it as the absence of disease.  Illness, on the other hand, is an abnormal condition or disease that impairs the body and/or mind from working properly.

I think that my idea of health being the absence of disease came from the way I experienced health care growing up.  At my annual check-ups, so long as none of the tests came back with negative or abnormal results, I was proclaimed healthy.  Illness in my mind was distinguished by clear signs and symptoms of disease.  As I progressed in school, I further developed my concept of health.  We were taught that health has many components besides the physical aspect, including social and mental health.  Growing up with a mom who works as a dietitian, I was also raised to think of health as stemming from a healthy lifestyle and diet, kind of like the “surplus health” mentioned in the lecture.

Sadness was the hardest condition to classify for me.  I have grown up with many of my family members suffering from depression and can see it as a disease.  It definitely can have physical manifestations like low energy and over- or under-eating, and prevents people from fully using their mental energy.  On the other hand, sadness takes many forms, and while chronic depression might fit my description of illness, sadness is a normal emotion that everyone can experience periodically or in response to events.

One condition that I would not classify as illness is poverty.  While poverty often leads to diminished health and disease, the term refers to a socio-economic status that is outside of the body.  The living conditions of poverty often do manifest themselves in poor nutrition, sanitation, and health care, but rather than seeing these as illness in themselves, I see them as leading to illnesses of different names.

I would classify HIV as an illness, since it can be transmitted and diagnosed, and impairs the health of its hosts.  This virus disrupts the body’s immune system and eventually causes the body to fall susceptible to many diseases.  Even in the latency period of HIV, before symptoms of full-blown AIDS begin, a diagnosed patient would most likely describe himself as experiencing illness.  The knowledge that his body is losing proper function can lead to anxiety and depression, even if his body shows no outward signs of disease.


Of all the approaches, looking at the biological aspect of health will be most useful to me as I head into a medical career.  Knowing the biological basis of health and disease is essential for recognizing symptoms, diagnosing problems, and prescribing treatments to maintain the highest state of health in patients.  I realize that understanding each individual’s cultural background and beliefs is important because it can affect her relationship with the health care system, but first and foremost I need to understand the effects of genes, lifestyle, and pathogens, to offer medical care.

After some reflection, I can now see a distinction between disease and illness.  To me, disease encompasses the physical changes that occur to impair someone’s health and keep her from fully functioning.  Illness, on the other hand, is the way someone experiences that decline in health and how she would explain it to others as well as herself.

I had heard about the Nacerima article before from a friend, so unfortunately the cat was out of the bag from the beginning, but I still gained an interesting perspective on our culture.  Reading about our obsession with the mouth cast a light on how much importance we place on the appearance of our teeth.  It reminded me of how frequently we judge people for having teeth that aren’t white and neatly aligned.  The level of perfection in a smile has somehow become an indication of intelligence or personality, and we often subconsciously judge it upon first meeting a person.

The article also focused on the masochistic aspect of medicine in our culture.  Visiting the doctor or dentist is so often a negative experience for people, but remains as a serious obligation to ward off and treat disease.  Rather than suffering from illness, people choose to suffer the pains of dental surgery and the discomfort of hospitals.  I thought it was interesting that the article referred to the complete faith patients have in their “medicine men,” even while they realize that treatments do not always guarantee a positive outcome.

Lastly, the article illuminated how bizarre our culture’s body image is.  Rather than celebrate bodies in optimum health and function, our media glorifies individuals who are abnormally thin or have unnaturally large breasts.  Despite the fact that these are far from the picture of health, individuals will change the way they eat or volunteer to undergo surgery in attempts to emulate these “ideal” bodies.

Tooting my own horn

Hi everyone!  My name’s Colleen and I’m a rising senior at MSU.  I’m studying human biology and music, which might seem like a strange combination.  Although I came into college only thinking of heading into medical school, I eventually decided to keep up playing/studying the oboe.  (I actually just got back from an oboe camp up in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Please don’t think I’m that big of a dork!)  Ever since I’ve been enjoying a balance between the sciences and the arts, which helps keep me from getting entirely stressed out about med school and the future!

This is my first time taking an anthropology class, and I’m excited to learn about the cultural aspects of medicine.

  This is me (on the right) and my older sister at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  I chose this photo because it’s with one of my favorite persons in one of my favorite places.