Best overall measure of health?
March 31, 2008 10:00 AM   Subscribe

If you had to pick just one metric to measure the overall health of an individual, what would that be?

I know that there are hundreds of variables that can be measured to determine if a person is in "good health" - which ones are the best general indicators? I've thought of a number of potentials - resting heart rate, body mass index, percentage of body fat, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, number of one-armed pushups you can do, time to run a mile, etc. I understand that in different situations different measures are appropriate, but for an average person with no serious illnesses, what indicator would be most appropriate?
posted by sherlockt to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Probably whatever is most closely correlated to Metabolic syndrome, though among the listed variables I'm not sure which it is. Bonus: Presence or absence of bubonic plague is also a good indicator.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:02 AM on March 31, 2008

Someone once told me that the amount of pain that one feels when pulling a hair from one's head is simple rule of thumb.

Probably not what you're looking for, but I bet that everyone reading this has just pulled one hair from their head.
posted by unixrat at 10:17 AM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Waist-hip ratio is well-correlated with a lot of good things. Warning: the Wikipedia article features naked buttocks (the horror!)
posted by 0xFCAF at 10:24 AM on March 31, 2008

I'd check for a pulse. Not the rate, just the presence or absence thereof.
posted by box at 10:26 AM on March 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

unixrat -- how exactly does that work? If it hurts a lot, does that mean I am healthy or unhealthy?
posted by Deathalicious at 10:27 AM on March 31, 2008

There was a NYT piece a few weeks ago that recommended (two-handed) pushups as a good measure. The author linked to a calculator that gives scores for a given age and number of reps.
posted by djb at 10:40 AM on March 31, 2008

Well, I think the things we usually think of as indicators of "good health" can really be grouped into two different categories--there are some that are a measure of our physical functionality at the current moment, and some that measure increased risk of diseases or death down the road. So, for example, waist-hip ratio, blood pressure, and percentage of body fat or BMI would probably fall into the second group (because it measures whether you're at elevated risk for heart attack and maybe other conditions down the road, although doesn't necessarily have any bearing on your current physical state) while time to run a mile or number of one-armed push ups you can do falls more into the first group.

I have no idea about what the best measure of health is in terms of predicting future illness. If you're trying to measure that, it might be useful to do some research into what diseases or disabilities cause the most ill health or death among the population you're interested in, then figuring out if there are any widely-accepted risk factors that can be measured.

If you're interested in indicators of current health, I think something measuring your ability to sustain a high level of physical activity over some period of time is probably on the right track. If you're looking for a measure that could be used for an entire population, you should stay away from measures that might be biased towards one group (for example, men as a group are more likely to have more upper-body strength, while women as a group have more power in their lower half, so testing one-handed push-ups would have the effect of making men seem healthier and women less healthy). Maybe the ability to maintain a certain heart rate (like 80 percent of maximum heart rate) doing any sort of cardiovascular exercise for a certain amount of time?
posted by iminurmefi at 10:40 AM on March 31, 2008

unixrat -- how exactly does that work? If it hurts a lot, does that mean I am healthy or unhealthy?

Sorry, I missed that important point. It should hurt. :) The less it hurts, the worse off you are. If it doesn't hurt at all, you may be dead and you should probably have that checked out.
posted by unixrat at 10:48 AM on March 31, 2008

I'd say of those, the mile running time sounds the best.

The others just test one or two aspects of fitness. But if you can run a mile quickly, your lungs, your heart, your muscles and your body weight are all probably OK.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:15 AM on March 31, 2008

Just a clarification, most of what you've mentioned is regarding fitness, not health. Many people who are healthy can't run a mile, do pushups, etc. And many people that can do pushups, have low-bodyfat, etc are not necessarily healthy.

I think this is partially subjective, some people value fitness (pushups, mile run) while others value lack of illness but don't care about fitness.

Crossfit attempts to address the fitness question, you can check out their What is Fitness pdf for the Crossfit view.
posted by jpeacock at 11:16 AM on March 31, 2008

Wait so it doesn't hurt at all when someone yanks whole handfuls of my hair! I must be dead.

No seriously, do you want a binary result? It's either "YES" or "NO" or do you want levels "1-10" or do you want an actual number with a unit "25 reps"? Should it be a standard system, like BMI? Give us more of the infoz.
posted by TomMelee at 11:25 AM on March 31, 2008

Gait analysis? I remember reading something about humans (and other animals) perceptual system being keyed-in to recognizing gaits of other (same-species) animals. What you do when you're scanning for a loved one in a crowd at the airport is gait analysis. You know the way your loved one walks, and it's sufficiently different from other people's so you can pick it out. It's also easy to tell young animals from mature ones, and geriatric ones from younger adults. This can help predators pick out animals to cull from a herd...

Here's an abstract to an article about using gait analysis to determine propensity to have serious falls (amongst the elderly). But sick individuals walk differently than well ones.

This won't tell you if a person has pancreatic cancer. But hey, not many metrics will. This will give you a sense of cardiovascular health, bone health (see above), neuromusculature, etc., etc. I'll argue that it's pretty general purpose. And it's also fast and easy, so you don't need a lot of complicated instruments to make your diagnosis.
posted by zpousman at 11:31 AM on March 31, 2008

I always judge peoples vitality by their eyes.
(bright, clean, active eyes = health. Dull, dirty, tired, soulless eyes = not so healthy)
posted by jmnugent at 11:51 AM on March 31, 2008

My first thought was sprinting the 40-yard dash and how out of breath the individual is afterwards.
posted by indigo4963 at 11:52 AM on March 31, 2008

Another followup: Do you need this "metric" to return a number?

Or can it be a subjective metric, like jmnugent and I proposed. Or like indigo4963, too, depending on how you take his suggestion (e.g., count respirations after for 1 minute = 42 or e.g., "very winded / kinda winded / not very winded"). In other words, does this need to be a metric that any competent person can give, or should it be more scientific than that? Because it affects the answers we'd give. Or at least I'd give.
posted by zpousman at 12:01 PM on March 31, 2008

Along the lines of Inspector.Gadget's answer, I'd say a blood test on glycosylated hemoglobin would probably correlate well with health. It's a measure of the average blood sugar level over the last few months. Given how many diseases are associated with poor diet and impaired blood sugar levels, I think this would be a good indicator.
posted by Durin's Bane at 12:09 PM on March 31, 2008

Response by poster: I was thinking something objective, numerical. One of the questions I'm thinking about is how to measure two individuals with offsetting "risk factors" against one another - one who is overweight but quite active physically vs someone who is thin yet entirely sedentary. Yes, obesity is a "risk factor" - but a risk factor only indicates RISK of poor health, not necessarily the actual presense or absence of poor health.
posted by sherlockt at 12:19 PM on March 31, 2008

Not exactly quantifiable, but I'd go with genuine happiness over time. Generally, people who take care of their bodies, exercise regularly, aren't suffering through an emotional or physical trauma are happy, and it shows. Sure there are diseased, or obese, or troubled, or otherwise encumbered people who are quite happy, but I think if you're looking for a standard measure, you may find that happiness seems to correlate quite nicely with healthiness.

No, I am sorry, I do not have a citation for this. And yes, I realize that this is subjective. But my personal experience in observing others leads me to believe that in general, mental and physical healthiness go hand in hand with happiness.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:31 PM on March 31, 2008

How about ability to focus on a demanding task? Duration of self-reported sense of calm or contentedness? Energy level? Etc.? Not as easy to quantify, obviously, but it doesn't sound like your question precludes non-physical characteristics, and it honestly seems to me that there might be some way of looking at one's mental or emotional state that takes into account the widest range of physical factors, compared to other physical indicators. But since I don't know why you're asking, I don't know if that's a useful idea.
posted by regicide is good for you at 12:36 PM on March 31, 2008

Or, yeah, what iamkimiam just said
posted by regicide is good for you at 12:36 PM on March 31, 2008


That so many other metrics are adjusted for it attests to its primacy.
posted by NortonDC at 1:52 PM on March 31, 2008

Cardiac stress test gives an excellent window into both fitness and health of the underlying vital organs. Vital signs (temp, pulse, BP) are vital because they are an excellent indicator of whether or not you're going to die right now. Some others that I'd think of as catch-alls are ESR and CRP as they are generic inflammatory markers. Many many diseases have an inflammatory component.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:06 PM on March 31, 2008

If I could pick exactly one easy-to-take measurement that would give me the most information about a person's health, I'd take blood pressure hands-down.

No, it's not perfect or even all that great. But it has the benefit of actually being feasible unlike a lot of the suggestions like "happiness", and it's a lot easier and quicker to get than time to run a mile.
posted by Justinian at 8:51 PM on March 31, 2008

The Hershey plan, an early incentive/disincentive health care program, tracked 5 risk factors: tobacco use, blood pressure, exercise, weight and cholesterol. If I had to choose one, like Justianian, I'd go with BP.
posted by klarck at 3:17 AM on April 1, 2008

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