Primer plano del torso de un médico con los brazos cruzados

Health Definition: The Concept Of Mental And Physical Health

What is health? We give you a health definition and explain social and environmental determinants

People are constantly debating the best overall health definition. Over the course of centuries, many changes have taken place in how we define health; while during some periods the focus was on the prevention and treatment of physical conditions, in others mental health and its role in biology also played an important role. Currently, it's hard to determine which model is the most prominent.

In this article, we will try to come up with the best health definition and answer the question: What is health?  Besides, we go over the concept of wellness, and the WHO definition of health -plus, the difference between physical and mental health.

Health definition

According to the Oxford dictionary, health is "the state of being free from illness or injury" or "a person's mental or physical condition." So, this isn't far from the World Health Organization's health definition which specifies that "health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." Based on this 1948 definition of health, the term 'health' doesn't just include the lack of illness but also a variety of psychological and social determinants that diminish the likelihood of the body developing physical conditions.

Other more current definitions highlight the fact that health isn't just a state but also a resource that helps us to satisfy our needs and meet our goals -in other words, to achieve well-being. From this point of view, it's important to understand that wellness isn't merely an isolated concept, but rather something that in large part depends on interpersonal interactions with people in one's environment.

The concept of health and illness

It's difficult to determine where healthfulness ends, and illness begins. For example, with people that are at high risk for certain health conditions, there is a fine line between treatment and prevention and these often overlap.

The concept of 'illness' usually includes true diseases (processes that alter the body's function) as well as injuries. Any condition that causes pain, discomfort or that implies a risk of death could be labeled an illness.

The concept of health and illness often lie on the same continuum.  From this perspective, total wellness is at one end; and premature death on the other. Depending on the physical and mental state of each person, everyone falls at some point on this line at any point during their lifetime.

The biomedical and biopsychosocial models

Over the centuries our health definition has changed, and it's still debated in the present day. One of the most controversial matters here is whether to separate or unite physical and mental soundness in this definition -a debate that most likely goes back to the distinction between body and soul.

Halfway through the 20th century, the biomedical model became the most prominent one in modern medicine.  Professionals that follow this model focus exclusively on biological factors in the prevention and treatment of diseases. The biomedical perspective defines wellness simply as the absence of illness.

On the other hand, opposing the biomedical model, we find the biopsychosocial concept of health which defines wellness as an all-encompassing idea that's determined by biological, psychological, and social factors. Instead of attempting to separate physical and mental well-being, the biopsychosocial health model sees all of these as one, and  the body and the mind as two indistinguishable entities.

Both models have their strengths and weaknesses. But, generally speaking, the biopsychosocial model is broader and more inclusive, so much so that its health definition may seem vague and confusing to apply.

Physical and mental health definition differences
Some forget to include mental health as a part of a health definition.

Physical and mental health definition differences

Most of the time when we discuss physical health, we talk about the body functioning properly, while mental soundness implies psychological well-being and, as a result, adequate interactions within a social context. However, as we've seen, drawing a line between body and mind is overly simplistic and problematic from a conceptual point of view.

Physical and mental health are closely related.  There aren't just physical illnesses caused by psychological factors and vice-versa, but also neglecting either of the two types of wellness could lead to problems in the other area, especially when it comes to chronic health conditions.

So, that means that people with chronic physical conditions are at a higher risk of developing psychiatric disorders; for example, people with dementia often suffer from depression. This means that having a psychological disorder, especially if it's serious, can also lead to the appearance of physical conditions.

Health sciences

Health sciences are disciplines that involve the prevention and treatment of illnesses and promoting wellness, hygiene, and well-being, both physical and mental. Their scope of action implies acquiring technical knowledge through research and then applying this to their work.

Some disciplines encompassed in the health sciences are medicine, psychology, pharmacy, nursing, veterinary medicine, physical therapy, ophthalmology, and nutritional sciences.

Determining factors of health

There is a wide range of determining factors since as we've seen, biological, psychological, and social variables all lead to one's overall fitness. Below we describe the health determinants the World Health Organization (WHO) considers most relevant.

1. Physical environment

Living conditions are vital when it comes to wellness. For example, the astronomical increase in life expectancy in large part is due to improvements in hygiene, nutrition, and health care, to name a few. For the most part, all of this depends on the physical environment that we reside in.

However, other changes in the modern world undermine our well-being. Scientific and technological advances have improved the standard of living, but they've also lead to more pollution, unhealthy eating habits, and stress, that affect the body negatively overall.

2. Genetics

The biological traits that we inherit from our parents could mean that we're more likely to suffer from certain physical and psychological conditions. Diabetes, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder are all ailments with a significant genetic component.

3. Socioeconomic status

Social and economic inequality both have substantial health consequences. Plus, these create apparent differences when it comes to accessing high-quality health care. Studies show that those with  higher  socioeconomic status have a longer life expectancy.

Related:  Universal Declaration Of Human Rights: 30 Inalienable Rights

Socioeconomic status
Socioeconomic status is an important determinant of health that should be included in any health definition.

4. Social support network

Healthy social interactions and actively participating in a community boost healthfulness and well-being. Positive interactions with the people around us improve psychological well-being and also indirectly impacts physical wellness; for example, we're more likely to go to the doctor if our loved ones encourage us to do so.

5. Health services

This point is related to two factors we already mentioned: physical environment and socioeconomic status. The easier it is to access health care services, the more likely it is that a person will be capable of preventing and curing ailments properly.

6. Level of education

According to research, having a low level of education is related to a higher likelihood of poor health, as well as experiencing stress.

Related: The Top 10 Leading Causes Of Death

7. Sex and gender

Sex and gender affect health and determine if we are predisposed to having certain diseases to varying degrees. For example, more men are diagnosed with heart disease  and women are more likely to be depressed or to have osteoporosis.

The difference in the relative frequency of illnesses is problematic in the sense that it leads to stereotypes, as is the case of heart disease, considered a 'man's disease' even though it's also common in women. 


Check out the original article: ¿Qué es la salud? Definición y conceptos de salud (física y mental) at



Callahan, D. (1973). The WHO definition of 'health. The Hastings Center Studies, 1(3): 77–87.

Jadad, A. R., O’Grady, L. (2008). How should health be defined?. BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.), 337.

Stokes, J., Noren, J., Shindell, S. (1982). Definition of terms and concepts applicable to clinical preventive medicine. Journal of Community Health, 8(1): 33–41.