What are the social determinants of health?
Health is a regular part of a person’s life that they cannot afford to neglect at any point in their lives. Different organizations worldwide have devoted themselves to promoting public health and positive lifestyle habits to improve the public’s overall quality of life.
However, the concept and reality of the social determinants of health complicate this public health goal. When discussing public health and the behaviors we can incorporate to live a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, it is helpful to first delve into a conversation about the social determinants of health.
The CDC defines social determinants of health as “the nonmedical factors that influence health outcomes” (CDC, 2022). These determinants can be factors that an individual may or may not be able to control. But what’s most important to note is that these factors and their social implications, directly and indirectly, affect an individual's health.
What are some examples of social determinants of health?
Some examples of social determinants of health include things like your age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, occupation, and living conditions. Things like gender and race are influenced by how we have categorized them within a social hierarchy.
These factors and others, such as socioeconomic status, can influence your access to health education, healthcare, quality healthcare, and economic stability. Lower-income and socioeconomic status is usually linked to less access to quality health care. Social stigmas and stereotypes related to gender and race can also make achieving optimal health more difficult.
Other factors have to do with your built environment or how the environment in which you live and work is constructed. This includes how safe the neighborhood you live in is, how demanding your work needs are, and the network of people you interact with daily.
For example, unsafe living conditions often lead to higher stress, linked to unhealthy behaviors such as lack of sleep. Or, a dangerous living environment can limit an individual's options for frequent exercise. The area may need to be more walkable or hazardous for people to go out during certain times.
A more specific example is living in a neighborhood close to an environmental hazard, such as a busy highway that produces high amounts of air pollution, near a contaminated water source, or in a community with contaminated soil. Living in an area with high pollution can make you more vulnerable to respiratory and cardiovascular health effects, putting you at risk for unhealthy living habits.
However, it is essential to note that social determinants may not always be negative. There can be factors that influence your quality of health positively, such as high education, high socioeconomic status, and living in an affluent neighborhood. The WHO mentions other social determinants of health that affect health: education, food insecurity, early childhood development, unemployment, job security, and income.
Why is it important to address these factors when discussing public health?
Social determinants of health are essential to discuss in a public health discussion because they often explain health inequities worldwide. Health inequities are defined as “the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries'' by the WHO. This conversation is essential for public health because it becomes a challenge to improve health conditions for the wider community.
Studies show that these outside social factors affect health outcomes by 50%, meaning we face a significant challenge in public health (Hacker et al., 2022).
What can we do to address these concerns?
What is important to note about social determinants of health is that these disparities cannot be alleviated solely by one’s person’s recognition of the issue. Instead, widespread change is needed to improve health conditions for the public.
Things like advocating for laws and policies that promote health equity and supporting politicians that push for these laws and policies can have the most significant impact. This multi-faceted issue can be solved by addressing the various disparities in different social institutions and processes.
Additionally, being conscious of the social determinants of health is beneficial in knowing what policies to look out for that perpetuate these inequities. Engaging in these types of conversations can be helpful to eventually understand the actions that need to be taken to improve health across different groups.
Supporting organizations that address public health concerns and make it a part of their mission to bridge the gap between health disparities worldwide can be a powerful way to inspire change. And finally, being a part of organizations that research and analyze public health issues is the best way to receive hands-on experience addressing the issues of social determinants of health.
Ultimately, it is essential to keep these determinants in mind when addressing the broader public health issue.