The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, National Public Radio, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently released a study on what Americans believe impacts their health. Their poll, conducted in October 2014, explored the public’s perceptions of what shapes health. The results indicate that Americans believe many factors influence our health. According to the study, the five most important perceived causes of personal health problems are 1) lack of access to high-quality medical care, 2) personal behavior, 3) viruses and bacteria, 4) high stress, and 5) being exposed to air, water, or chemical pollution. View the full webcast and results of the study here.
What strikes me about this poll is the importance of people’s perceptions. I learned through my public health programming studies that people’s perceptions can be different from reality but nonetheless very powerful. The other interesting revelation in this study was how perceptions differed among income levels. For instance, 87% of people with an income of ≥ $75,000/year believed that they had a great deal/quite a bit of control of their health, whereas only 69% of people with an income of < $25,000/year thought the same. Another gap in perception between low- and high-income individuals—one that is especially important when considering how childhood shapes adult health—is highlighted below.
The Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index is another compelling example of how perceptions sculpt the picture of health in our community. The 2014 poll results, released in February 2015, showed that Indiana ranked 48th in measurements of well-being. Other Midwestern states, including Michigan and Ohio, joined Indiana in the bottom quintile. The Healthways researchers define well-being with five essential elements:
- Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
- Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
- Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
- Community: liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community
- Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily
Our illustrated perceptions of what makes us healthy are an indication of what makes health so complex. There is not just one area of our life that can be changed to better our health. In order to improve health we must consider all the aspects of well-being that are intrinsically connected with our perceptions and reality. Being healthy can be tough, but being aware of all the causes and perceptions of health is essential for improved well-being.