July 08, 2019

The Intersection between Biography, History, and Health

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

We often think about our health as profoundly personal, rooted in individual choices regarding what we eat, how much we exercise, and how well we comply with medical advice. Federal laws protect the privacy of our health information, and many people opt not to share information about their health with anyone but family and close friends (and sometimes not even with them), reinforcing the notion of health as personal.

And yet much of our health status is beyond our personal control, as I wrote about last year. Whether it is access to healthy food options, the time and space to exercise, or the availability of regular medical care, many aspects of our health are tied to public policy decisions and historical changes.

C. Wright Mills reminds us that a central part of developing a sociological imagination is to understand the intersection between biography and history, particularly how broader social forces shape our lives. This is especially relevant when we consider our health.

For instance:

  1. If you were born at a time and place when infectious diseases were largely preventable (through vaccines) or treatable (with antibiotics), then your life expectancy is likely to be much longer than someone who is less fortunate.
  2. If you live at a time or place when treatment exists for degenerative diseases like cancer, you are likely to live longer—even if only by months or years—and with more emotional support in place.

As the book Cancer: The Emperor of all Maladies (and the Ken Burns documentary) vividly details, effective treatments for diseases like leukemia were only developed in the past half-century. Until the 1970s, cancer carried such stigma that people were sometimes not told of their diagnosis, or had few sources of support. Certainly stigma still exists, especially for some diseases, but there are formal organizations in place to help patients and family members cope with a variety of conditions. Those of us living today have a significant health advantage over others who did not have these options.

  1. Having the resources to receive the best treatment available, which in the U.S. translates into a very robust health insurance policy, as well as the time to travel to specialists (and the connections to find specialists) will increase your lifespan and improve your overall health. If you live in developed countries, you likely also benefit from public policy regarding health care coverage—this is especially true in the U.S. for those who receive Medicare.
  2. Using internet tools to find specialists, read about the condition, and connect with others for support, is only possible thanks to the creation of the internet and having internet access, as well as a device to connect with.
  3. Do you eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and minimize your intake of processed foods? People who live in food deserts lack regular access to healthy food choices. These foods also spoil more quickly than packaged, processed foods, so people struggling financially might choose less healthy foods with longer shelf life even if they can purchase fresh produce.
  4. We also benefit from enhanced knowledge about nutrition. The discovery of vitamins is just over a century old, as are transportation systems that can move a large variety of different kinds of foods quickly around the world, preventing many vitamin deficiency-related diseases. More recently, research into the gut microbiome is shaping the kinds of foods we eat in hopes of promoting overall good health.
  5. In the U.S. and many other industrialized nations, workplace safety laws reduce on-the-job injuries. If you live somewhere with many occupational choices, you might be able to get a job that presents less of a risk to your health. In tight labor markets, or in regions with little variety of occupations, there might be more job-related risk.
  6. If you are female and came of age after the passage of Title IX, you probably had many more opportunities to participate in sports, or even encouragement to be physically active.

Some of my older female relatives were raised with the belief that girls and women shouldn’t exert themselves too much or lift anything heavy. Years of inactivity contribute to health issues like obesity, mobility problems, and osteoporosis. Thanks to changes in policies and practices, girls have many more opportunities to participate in organized sports than they did before the 1970s.

These are just a few examples of how our own personal health options are rooted in the time and place in which we live. What other health-related examples illustrate the intersection between biography, history, and our health?

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