Hello everyone! Today I’m trying out something a little different here on the blog. Typically, I post nutrition content, recipes, recent eats recaps, and environmental health science stuff. But today we are talking public health; specifically, we are answering the question “what are the social determinants of health?”
Are you interested in public health? I am (clearly…I got my MPH). And I want to share some of what I’ve learned with others so everyone reading this can be a better-informed human, better equipped to understand health-related news articles with a greater perspective or understanding.
Lately I’ve been doing some reflecting and wondering what content I really want on my blog. I want my posts to be useful, informative, and entertaining…I am currently leaning more towards info-based posts and less recipe posts. There are approximately 10 million excellent recipe blogs out there, but there are far less blogs (that I know of) that provide science-based nutrition content.
So since I have the time and energy and motivation, I’m currently enjoying writing more science-based nutrition, environmental, and public health-focused post (while still doing recipes!) Let me know what you like to see around here. I’m always open to hearing your thoughts.
Anyways, that was a long random aside.
Back to the social determinants of health. I actually was assigned to write about this for a job I had, and I’m fairly sure my draft never got used. So it goes in content-creating jobs.
But while I was researching and writing the post, I got to thinking about how I wish I had been better educated about this topic from an earlier age. I feel like the social determinants of health was not really ever taught in any of my high school science or even undergrad classes. And as someone who took a lot of science and health-oriented classes, I wish it had been stressed with greater importance from the get-go!
I learned about the social determinants of health formally during my MS and MPH programs, especially in the later. While I have worked with people of many socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, I feel like learning more about the social determinants of health has been important in realistic understanding of complexity and deep systemic causes of many health-related issues, widening my compassion and understanding, and making me a more thoughtful, systems-thinking problem solver.
Moreover, I think the social determinants of health are super important to keep in mind when consuming “wellness” media, which often comes from a highly privileged lens. It’s not easy for most people to snap their fingers and make healthier choices – heck, some people can’t even afford safe transportation to the grocery store. But more on that later in another post. For now, let’s just chat about what the social determinants of health are.
So, What are the Social Determinants of Health?
The social determinants of health are conditions, including environmental, economic, and social conditions in a place a person lives, works, breathes, and learns, that can have a wide range of impacts on many health risks, disease rates, and quality-of-life outcomes.
The social determinants of health can play a significant role in a person or a community’s well-being. Although they have been historically understudied, the social determinants of health are now gaining increasing attention as an essential component of understanding and improving human health.
Examples of Social Determinants of Health:
As mentioned above, the social determinants of health encompass a variety of conditions, including environmental, economic, and social conditions, among others.
But what are some examples of social of determinants of health?
Well, let’s start with economic conditions. Poverty itself is a known health risk factor for a multitude of diseases and physical and mental health conditions. A person’s ability to afford safe places to live, ample basic resource needs such as nutritious food and clean water, and access to healthcare are important to health.
Think about it: if you can only afford a moldy, cockroach-infested apartment near an airport, you are exposing yourself to a wide variety of allergens that someone in a newer apartment in a lower-emission neighborhood may experience.
Likewise, if you live in a low income neighborhood with tainted water, you are more likely to experience health risks than someone who lives in a higher-income neighborhood with clean water, or an individual who can afford a water filter.
Nutritious food also costs money. While it is easy to tell people to simply “get creative” with budgets and low-cost healthy foods like beans or frozen vegetables, the reality is that many people live in food deserts where healthy groceries are not as readily available or extremely expensive. At an even more basic level, some people can’t even afford transportation to and/or from a grocery store.
And then, of course, there’s health care. Many have struggled, or continue to struggle, to afford adequate medical, dental, and mental health care.
Economics can also play a large role in available educational and occupational opportunities a person has available to them. I believe Obama once said “You can’t reach for what you can’t see,” and I find this to be very true. Many in low-resource settings may not be exposed to the same educational opportunities or scholarships to achieve higher education or training of any type. This plays a longer-term role in their financial well-being, creating a difficult-to-break cycle.
Social conditions are another social determinant of health. Social attitudes and norms, exposure to crime and violence, residential segregation, and distrust of government, all contribute to a person’s well-being. Discrimination or historical trauma are also considered social determinants of health. Historically marginalized groups may still suffer from prejudice or stigmatization.
Sadly, racism, sexism, stigma, and oppression are still all present in the United States and across the world. These social conditions can impact a person’s physical and mental health, as well as their ability to thrive academically or professionally, which may impact their finances, which also may impact their health.
On the flip side, social privilege can lead to greater health opportunities. We all hear about someone who knows someone who can got them in to see a top doctor or specialist. Those with more financial resources can also afford medical treatments or traveling for medical treatments, as well as more preventive resources, like healthy food, firness classes, mental health therapy, and stress-management treatments like massages.
And then there are environmental determinants of health, of which, there are many. Environmental toxins, for example, have emerged as a hot topic in recent years. From lead in pipes to quality of the air a person has to breathe, environmental conditions can have an enormous impact on human health.
The built environment also plays a role. Think about the place you live: can you walk or run outside while feeling safe? Do you have access to parks and green spaces? Are there sidewalks and bike lanes? All of these are considered built environmental privileges.
Access to green space, the availability of safe roads, sidewalks and bike lanes, environmental conditions and exposure to toxins, local air and water quality, and even aesthetic elements including good lighting, trees, and benches, can all contribute to a person’s physical or physiological well-being.
Putting it all together:
Together, social, environmental, and economic conditions make up the social determinants of health. Keep in mind the above examples are exhaustive. There are many social determinants of health that can have a snowball effect.
For example, being born into a zip code with an under-resourced school system may limit a person’s opportunities for higher education, and/or impact their professional opportunities and shape their future level of income.
Furthermore, if that neighborhood has no safe places to play, someone growing up in that neighborhood may not have the opportunities to exercise as much as kids in safer neighborhoods. They may also have a harder time getting safely to a grocery store with accessible, affordable healthier food options. All of these can have long-term affects.
With limited income comes limited access other physical, health, and social resources, with potential intergenerational effects (meaning lesser resources for the individual’s children, etc).
I hope this was at least someone helpful and/or interesting to understand some social determinants of health, and help you keep an open mind as to why not everyone can just snap their fingers and make healthier choices. I’m planning a whole post about how this stuff plays into nutrition and the wellness industry, so stay tuned for that.
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