Published Feb 13, 2008

The anthropology department has created a track that allows students to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in anthropology with a health emphasis, which fulfills pre-med requirements while teaching students how health care varies across cultures.Students will also learn about human nature, evolutionary adaptations and diversity.

"Anthropology also tries to understand the evolutionary reasons why we get sick, why we age, why our bodies are the way they are, and why we behave as we do," said Elizabeth Cashdan, anthropology department chair. "It's a fascinating perspective on health and disease."

Evolutionary trends in human body form provide important context for interpreting variation among modern populations. Average body mass in living humans is smaller than it was during most of the Pleistocene, possibly owing to technological improvements during the past 50,000 years that no longer favored large body size. Sexual dimorphism in body size reached modern levels at least 150,000 years ago and probably earlier. Geographic variation in both body size and shape in earlier humans paralleled latitudinal clines observed today.

Climatic adaptation is the most likely primary cause for these gradients, overlain in more recent populations by nutritional effects on growth. Thus, to distinguish growth disturbances, it is necessary to partition out the (presumably genetic) long-term differences in body form between populations that have resulted from climatic selection. An example is given from a study of Inupiat children, using a new index of body shape to assess relative body mass.

One of the areas that anthropology contributes is in the study of the relationship between culture and disease.  Why is it that some areas of the world suffer disproportionately from infectious disease?  How does the way we live expose us to illness?

For example, assessments of global health differ significantly.   There are optimistic projections that claim that we will continue to build on the medical advances of the past century until virtually everyone enjoys a standard of health now enjoyed by the relatively well-to-do of the wealthy nations.  Others are more pessimistic, pointing to the unequal distribution of health resources, the continuing increase in environmental pollution, the increase in antibiotic resistant disease, and the emergence of new diseases such as HIV/AIDS.  The following sites provide some overviews of the state of global health and some projections of what to expect in the next century.

If a patient is not of the same ethnic or social class as the doctor, there might be problems understanding each other's cultural perceptions of health, Cashdan said. She thinks if doctors want to help patients change their health-related behaviors, they need to understand where their patients are coming from, and anthropology teaches that.

Qualitative methods are now common in research into the social and cultural dimensions of ill health and health care. These methods derive from several social sciences, but the concepts and knowledge from some disciplinary traditions are underused. Here we describe the potential contribution of anthropology, which is based on the empirical comparison of particular societies. Anthropology has biological, social, and cultural branches, but when applied to health issues it most commonly relates to the social and cultural dimensions of health, ill health, and medicine.1

Cashdan said she has spoken with a doctor who showed ignorance of evolutionary theory, which disappointed her. The human body and mind evolve, and it's helpful for a physician to know why the body adapts, she said.

Cashdan organized the new degree track with the pre-med adviser and dean of admissions. The new track was approved at the end of Fall Semester 2007, and will begin this fall.

"Our department has a biological and cultural approach to understanding people, and both are reflected in the courses (of the new track)," she said.

The idea of a track that molds more culturally understanding doctors was encouraged by an article in Newsweek magazine, published in September 2007. According to the article, medical schools are seeking more well-rounded, non-science students who are more caring and analytical of their patient's background.

Sandra McCarthy, anthropology department advisor, said hospitals are looking for doctors who have a life outside of work and can make a human connection with their patients.

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