To improve health, public health professionals must often address social and economic factors.

What Are the Social Determinants of Health?

We all know that our innate biology and what we put into our bodies affect our health. But how about the conditions outside of our bodies? Do factors like our social settings, economic stability, and education level help determine our health?

The answer is yes.

Called the social determinants of health, the conditions of our lives can dramatically impact the healthiness of our lives.* It’s a matter public health professionals must routinely address when developing and administrating public health programs. And it’s an issue you, too, will face if you’re considering starting or advancing a public health career.

What Are the Social Determinants of Health?

In general, a social determinant is considered to be any exterior condition of someone’s life that is impacting or may eventually impact their health choices, healthcare access, and/or overall health quality. The U.S. government’s Healthy People 2020 initiative lists the following examples of social determinants†:

  • Availability of resources to meet daily needs (e.g., safe housing and local food markets)
  • Access to educational, economic, and job opportunities
  • Access to healthcare services
  • Quality of education and job training
  • Availability of community-based resources in support of community living and opportunities for recreational and leisure-time activities
  • Transportation options
  • Public safety
  • Social support
  • Social norms and attitudes (e.g., discrimination, racism, and distrust of government)
  • Exposure to crime, violence, and social disorder (e.g., presence of trash and lack of cooperation in a community)
  • Socioeconomic conditions (e.g., concentrated poverty and the stressful conditions that accompany it)
  • Residential segregation
  • Language/literacy
  • Access to mass media and emerging technologies (e.g., cell phones, the internet, and social media)
  • Culture

What Are the Most Significant Determinants of Health?

Economics

Income and health have long been linked. The poorer someone is, the less likely they are to be healthy. This correlation exists for a large number of reasons, but can begin as early as the womb. Low-income mothers are less likely to be able to afford and/or find time for proper prenatal care. The problems only persist from there. Those who are poor often eat poorly and/or irregularly due to food insecurity, live in substandard housing, and experience greater levels of stress due to constant economic struggle.

Education

People with a higher level of education live longer on average than those with a lower level of education.§ This is due primarily to the direct correlation between education and income level.** People with lower education levels end up working more physically demanding jobs, live in less healthy neighborhoods because they can’t afford nicer ones, and typically don’t have a good employer-provided healthcare plan, which inhibits their ability to afford proper medical care. Plus, a lack of education often includes a lack of understanding about which lifestyle choices have negative health consequences.

Neighborhood

Good neighborhoods include amenities that can help residents stay healthier. Green spaces encourage physical activity, quality supermarkets make healthy fresh fruits and vegetables readily available, safe streets keep stresses down, and quality transportation options make it easier to get to and from healthcare providers. Lower-quality neighborhoods, however, can be quite hazardous to their residents’ health.†† In addition to lacking the amenities above, bad neighborhoods are more likely to be close to polluting industries and roads, offer substandard housing that contains hazardous materials and/or can’t be properly heated or cooled, and suffer from higher crime and poorer infrastructure, which can put people at risk of injury and increase stress.

Access to Care

Many people in America and throughout the world lack proper access to healthcare. This is particularly true for those living in rural communities. In fact, while rural America has 20% of the U.S. population, it only has 10% of the doctors.‡‡ Being unable to easily access healthcare limits how often people receive care.

Social Setting

One of the most personal determinants of our health is the strength of our relationships. Numerous studies have found that those with strong social networks and family support are less likely to experience mental and physical health problems throughout their lifetimes.§§ While there are a lot of causes for this correlation, researchers believe it primarily has to do with the fact that people in healthier relationships feel more motivated or obliged to make healthy life choices.

How Can You Help Improve Public Health?

Earning a degree in public health can put you on the path to helping people live healthier lives. In particular, a Master of Public Health (MPH degree) can help you gain the skills you need for a public health job that makes a real difference (and earns a good public health salary).

If you’re concerned you don’t have the time to earn a Master of Public Health, you should consider online education. Through an online MPH program, you can earn your Master of Public Health degree while continuing to work full time. That’s because an online public health degree program gives you the opportunity to complete your coursework from home. Plus, online public health graduate programs are designed to let you attend classes at whatever time of day fits your schedule.

The best MPH programs can prepare you for a successful career helping people address social determinants and improve their health. Thanks to online learning, you can earn your master’s in public health more conveniently than you ever thought possible.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a Master of Public Health degree online. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


*World Health Organization, Social Determinants of Health, on the internet at www.who.int/social_determinants/en.

†Healthy People 2020, Social Determinants of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on the internet at www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/social-determinants-of-health.

‡L. Esposito, The Countless Ways Poverty Affects People's Health, U.S. News & World Report, on the internet at http://health.usnews.com/health-news/patient-advice/articles/2016-04-20/the-countless-ways-poverty-affects-peoples-health.

§Krueger, P., et. al., Mortality Attributable to Low Levels of Education in the United States, Plos One, on the internet at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0131809.

**E. Porter, A Simple Equation: More Education = More Income, New York Times, on the internet at www.nytimes.com/2014/09/11/business/economy/a-simple-equation-more-education-more-income.html?_r=0.

††Commission to Build a Healthier America, Where We Live Matters for Our Health: Neighborhoods and Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, on the internet as a PDF at www.commissiononhealth.org/PDF/888f4a18-eb90-45be-a2f8-159e84a55a4c/Issue%20Brief%203%20Sept%2008%20-%20Neighborhoods%20and%20Health.pdf.

‡‡Stanford Medicine, Rural Health Fact Sheet, Healthcare Disparities & Barriers to Healthcare, on the internet at http://ruralhealth.stanford.edu/health-pros/factsheets/disparities-barriers.html.

§§Institute of Medicine, Genes, Behavior, and the Social Environment: Moving Beyond the Nature/Nurture Debate, on the internet at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19924.

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, www.hlcommission.org.

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