Applying the Science of Health and Wellbeing

John Ioannidis, MD, DSc

To date, wellness has been difficult to define scientifically because it encompasses all the delicate and exciting experiences that make life worth living. Physical vitality, mental alacrity, social satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment and personal fulfillment all contribute to wellness.

“Health seems like a no-brainer, but it is more than the absence of disease,” says John Ioannidis, MD, DSc, director of the Stanford Prevention Research Center (SPRC). The Wellness Living Laboratory (WELL) is the flagship effort of SPRC, and it aims to draw on the strengths and insights of world-renowned researchers at Stanford, using the best that rigorous science has to offer in approaching this important concept. “There’s clearly a lot of enthusiasm for obtaining actionable information about healthy living,” says Ioannidis.

The SPRC is particularly interested in diminishing health inequalities and serving disadvantaged populations, thereby contributing to Stanford University’s service to society.  SPRC is a unique gem within the vibrant Stanford community. For nearly half a century, SPRC has been making leading contributions to the field of disease prevention.

WELL aims to be the definitive platform to investigate, promote, and extend wellness for people across the socioeconomic spectrum. Studies in genetic science suggest that less than a quarter of health is dictated by immutable genetics, leaving over seventy-five percent influenced by other elements, such as lifestyle choices. Great scientific strides have been made in managing disease; yet, the real question is how do we prevent illness in the initial state.

WELL will engage tens of thousands of volunteers—called “citizen scientists”—in two initial locations: Santa Clara County, California, and Hangzhou, China, with plans to expand to other sites as additional funding is secured. The citizen scientists participating in this effort will contribute information to improve our understanding of what makes lives healthier.

“ more than the absence of disease”

Santa Clara County was selected because it is one of the most diverse counties in the United States and is home to people of many cultures and income levels. This diversity provides unique opportunities for investigators to increase current understanding of the complex range of factors that affect the health and wellness of individuals and communities.

Although the benefits of economic development have created substantial gains in living standards, health outcomes, and health care systems, it has also created new health problems that cannot be solved through disease-focused investment, but only through emphasizing prevention and wellness at the population level. This dynamic is nowhere more evident than in China, where the rapid rise of obesity, diabetes, and other non-communicable diseases threatens hard-won gains in both health outcomes and social equity. “Researchers selected China because of its large population, rapidly expanding economy, and its concomitant growth of chronic disease,” says Ioannidis.

The next generation cohorts of WELL that are being built in multiple countries will help dissect what affects wellness both for individuals and for large populations. Participants will be encouraged to engage in studies that will assess in a rigorous way diverse interventions that may be influential in shaping wellness. WELL’s initial funding is through a gift from the Nutrilite Health Institute Fund provided by Amway.

WELL seeks to scientifically determine the interaction of relevant evidence-based wellness domains to establish best wellness practices to improve health and quality of life among all segments of populations, positively impacting individuals, communities, and policies by using the three-pronged approach of observation, intervention, and biology.

WELL’s aim is to apply the science of health and wellbeing into concrete, scientific evidence that can improve the quality of our lives. WELL is a cutting-edge effort to define, redefine, expand, and materialize wellness.

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