Social determinants of health

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The social determinants of health are the economic and social conditions – and their distribution among the population – that influence individual and group differences in health status. They are risk factors found in one's living and working conditions (such as the distribution of income, wealth, influence, and power), rather than individual factors (such as behavioural risk factors or genetics) that influence the risk for a disease, or vulnerability to disease or injury. According to some viewpoints, these distributions of social determinants are shaped by public policies that reflect the influence of prevailing political ideologies of those governing a jurisdiction.[1] The World Health Organization says that “This unequal distribution of health-damaging experiences is not in any sense a ‘natural’ phenomenon but is the result of a toxic combination of poor social policies, unfair economic arrangements [where the already well-off and healthy become even richer and the poor who are already more likely to be ill become even poorer], and bad politics.”[2]

Commonly accepted social determinants of health

There is no single definition of the social determinants of health, but there are commonalities, and many governmental and non-governmental organizations recognize that there are social factors which impact the health of individuals.

In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) Europe suggested that the social determinants of health included:[3]

In Canada these social determinants of health have gained wide usage [1].

These SDOH are clearly related to health outcomes, are closely tied to public policy, and are clearly understandable by the public. Sadly, they tend to cluster together such that those living in poverty, for example, also experience numerous other adverse social determinants. The quality and equitable distribution of these social determinants in Canada and the USA are clearly well below the standards seen in other developed nations. [4]

The WHO later developed a Commission on Social Determinants of Health, which in 2008 published a report entitled "Closing the Gap in a Generation".[2] This report identified two broad areas of social determinants of health that needed to be addressed. The first area was daily living conditions, which included healthy physical environments, fair employment and decent work, social protection across the lifespan, and access to health care. The second major area was distribution of power, money, and resources, including equity in health programs, public financing of action on the social determinants, economic inequalities, resource depletion, healthy working conditions, gender equity, political empowerment, and a balance of power and prosperity of nations.[2]

The 2011 World Conference on Social Determinants of Health brought together delegations from 125 member states and resulted in the Rio Political Declaration on Social Determinants of Health. This declaration involved an affirmation that health inequities are unacceptable, and noted that these inequities arise from the societal conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age, including early childhood development, education, economic status, employment and decent work, housing environment, and effective prevention and treatment of health problems.[5]

The United States Centers for Disease Control defines social determinants of health as "life-enhancing resources, such as food supply, housing, economic and social relationships, transportation, education, and health care, whose distribution across populations effectively determines length and quality of life".[6] These include access to care and resources such as food, insurance coverage, income, housing, and transportation.[6] Social determinants of health influence health-promoting behaviours, and health equity among the population is not possible without equitable distribution of social determinants among groups.[6]

Woolf states, "The degree to which social conditions affect health is illustrated by the association between education and mortality rates".[7] Reports in 2005 revealed the mortality rate was 206.3 per 100,000 for adults aged 25 to 64 years with little education beyond high school, but was twice as great (477.6 per 100,000) for those with only a high school education and 3 times as great (650.4 per 100,000) for those less educated. Based on the data collected, the social conditions such as education, income, and race were very much dependent on one another, but these social conditions also apply independent health influences.[7]

Marmot and Bell found that in wealthy countries, income and mortality are correlated as a marker of relative position within society, and this relative position is related to social conditions that are important for health including good early childhood development, access to good quality education, rewarding work with some degree of autonomy, decent housing, and a clean and safe living environment. The social condition of autonomy, control, and empowerment turns are important influences on health and disease, and individuals who lack social participation and control over their lives are at a greater risk for heart disease and mental illness.[8]

International Health Disparities

Even in the wealthiest countries, there are disparities in health between the rich and the poor.[3] Canadian authors Labonte and Schrecker from the University of Ottawa note that globalization is a key context for the study of the social determinants of health, and the impacts of globalization are asymmetric.[9] As a result, there is an uneven distribution of wealth and influence both within and across national borders, leading to negative impacts on the social determinants of health. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found significant differences among developed nations in health status indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality, incidence of disease, and death from injuries.[10]

These disparities may exist in the context of the health care system, or in broader social approaches. According to the WHO's Commission on Social Determinants of Health, access to health care is essential for equitable health, and it argued that health care should be a common good rather than a market commodity.[2] However, there is substantial variation in health care systems and coverage from country to country. The Commission also calls for government action on such things as access to clean water and safe, equitable working conditions, and it notes that dangerous working conditions exist even in some wealthy countries.[2] In the Rio Political Declaration on Social Determinants of Health, several key areas of action were identified to address disparities, including promotion of participatory policy-making processes, strengthening global governance and collaboration, and encouraged developed countries to reach a target of 0.7% of gross national product (GNP) for official development assistance.[5]

Theoretical Approaches

The UK Black and The Health Divide reports considered two primary mechanisms for understanding the process by which the social determinants influence health: cultural/ behavioural and materialist/structuralist.[11] The cultural/behavioural explanation was that individuals' behavioural choices (e.g., tobacco and alcohol use, diet, physical activity, etc.) were responsible for their developing and dying from a variety of diseases. However, both the Black and Health divide reports found that behavioural choices are heavily structured by one’s material conditions of life, and these behavioural risk factors account for a relatively small proportion of variation in the incidence and death from various diseases.

The materialist/structuralist explanation emphasizes the material conditions under which people live. These conditions include availability of resources to access the amenities of life, working conditions, and quality of available food and housing among others. Within this view, three frameworks have been developed to explain how social determinants influence health.[12] These frameworks are: (a) materialist; (b) neo-materialist; and (c) psychosocial comparison. The materialist explanation is about how living conditions – and the social determinants of health that constitute these living conditions—shape health. The neo-materialist explanation extends the materialist analysis by asking how these living conditions come about. The psychosocial comparison explanation considers whether people compare themselves to others and how these comparisons affect health and wellbeing.

The wealth of nations is a strong indicator of population health. But within nations, socio-economic position is a powerful predictor of health as it is an indicator of material advantage or disadvantage over the lifespan.[13] Material conditions of life determine health by influencing the quality of individual development, family life and interaction, and community environments. Material conditions of life lead to differing likelihood of physical (infections, malnutrition, chronic disease, and injuries), developmental (delayed or impaired cognitive, personality, and social development), educational (learning disabilities, poor learning, early school leaving), and social (socialization, preparation for work, and family life) problems.[14] Overall wealth of nations is a strong indicator of population health. But within nations, socio-economic position is a powerful predictor of health as it is an indicator of material advantage or disadvantage over the lifespan.[13] Material conditions of life also lead to differences in psychosocial stress[15] The fight-or-flight reaction—chronically elicited in response to threats such as income, housing, and food insecurity, among others—weakens the immune system, leads to increased insulin resistance, greater incidence of lipid and clotting disorders, and other biomedical insults that are precursors to adult disease.

Adoption of health-threatening behaviours is also influenced by material deprivation and stress.[16] Environments influence whether individuals take up tobacco, use alcohol, experience poor diets, and have low levels of physical activity. Tobacco and excessive alcohol use, and carbohydrate-dense diets are also means of coping with difficult circumstances.[17][18] The materialist approach offers insight into the sources of health inequalities among individuals and nations and the role played by the social determinants of health.

The neo-materialist approach is concerned with how nations, regions, and cities differ on how economic and other resources are distributed among the population.[19] This distribution of resources can vary widely from country to country. The neo-materialist view therefore, directs attention to both the effects of living conditions – the social determinants of health—on individuals' health and the societal factors that determine the quality of the distribution of these social determinants of health. How a society decides to distribute resources among citizens is especially important.

The social comparison approach holds that the social determinants of health play their role through citizens’ interpretations of their standings in the social hierarchy.[20] There are two mechanisms by which this occurs. At the individual level, the perception and experience of one’s status in unequal societies lead to stress and poor health. Feelings of shame, worthlessness, and envy can lead to harmful effects upon neuro-endocrine, autonomic and metabolic, and immune systems.[15] Comparisons to those of a higher social class can also lead to attempts to alleviate such feelings by overspending, taking on additional employment that threaten health, and adopting health-threatening coping behaviours such as overeating and using alcohol and tobacco.[20] At the communal level, widening and strengthening of hierarchy weakens social cohesion, which is a determinant of health.[21] The social comparison approach directs attention to the psychosocial effects of public policies that weaken the social determinants of health. However, these effects may be secondary to how societies distribute material resources and provide security to its citizens, which are described in the materialist and neo-materialist approaches.

Life-course perspective

Life-course approaches emphasize the accumulated effects of experience across the life span in understanding the maintenance of health and the onset of disease. The economic and social conditions—the social determinants of health—under which individuals live their lives have a cumulative effect upon the probability of developing any number of diseases, including heart disease and stroke [22][23] Studies into the childhood and adulthood antecedents of adult-onset diabetes show that adverse economic and social conditions across the life span predispose individuals to this disorder.[24][25]

Hertzman outlines three health effects that have relevance for a life-course perspective.[26] Latent effects are biological or developmental early life experiences that influence health later in life. Low birth weight, for instance, is a reliable predictor of incidence of cardiovascular disease and adult-onset diabetes in later life. Experience of nutritional deprivation during childhood has lasting health effects.

Pathway effects are experiences that set individuals onto trajectories that influence health, well-being, and competence over the life course. As one example, children who enter school with delayed vocabulary are set upon a path that leads to lower educational expectations, poor employment prospects, and greater likelihood of illness and disease across the lifespan. Deprivation associated with poor-quality neighbourhoods, schools, and housing sets children off on paths that are not conducive to health and well-being.

Cumulative effects are the accumulation of advantage or disadvantage over time that manifests itself in poor health. These involve the combination of latent and pathways effects. Adopting a life-course perspective directs attention to how social determinants of health operate at every level of development—early childhood, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—to both immediately influence health and provide the basis for health or illness later in life.

Steps to improve conditions of health worldwide

Reducing the health gap in a generation requires that governments build systems that allow a healthy standard of living where no one should fall below due to circumstances beyond his or her control. Social protection schemes can be instrumental in realizing developmental goals rather than being dependent on achieving those goals. They can be effective ways to reduce poverty and local economies can benefit.[2]

Policies to reduce child poverty are particularly important, as elevated stress hormones in children interfere with the development of brain circuitry and connections, causing long term chemical damage.[27] Studies showed that the immune system of participants were stronger if their parents had the security of home ownership while the participants were growing up.[citation needed] In most wealthy countries, the relative child poverty rate is 10 percent or less; in the United States, it is 21.9 percent.[citation needed] The lowest poverty rates are more common in smaller well-developed and high-spending welfare states like Sweden and Finland, with about 5 or 6 percent .[citation needed] Middle-level rates are found in major European countries where unemployment compensation is more generous and social policies provide more generous support to single mothers and working women (through paid family leave, for example), and where social assistance minimums are high. For instance, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Germany have poverty rates that are in the 7 to 8 percent range.[28]

The Commission on Social Determinants of Health (CSDH) in 2005 made recommendations for action to promote health equity based on 3 principles of action: “improve the circumstances in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age; tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money, and resources, the structural drivers of conditions of daily life, globally, nationally, and locally; and measure the problem, evaluate action, and expand the knowledge base.”.[8] These recommendations would involve providing resources such as quality education, decent housing, access to affordable health care, access to healthy food, and safe places to exercise for everyone despite gaps in affluence. Expansion of knowledge of the social determinants of health, including among healthcare workers, can improve the quality and standard of care for people who are marginalized, poor or living in developing nations by preventing early death and disability while working to improve quality of life.[29]

Public policy

The Rio Political Declaration on Social Determinants of Health embraces a transparent, participatory model of policy development that, among other things, addresses the social determinants of health leading to persistent health inequalities for indigenous peoples.[5]

The United States Department of Health and Human Services includes social determinants in its model of population health, and one of its missions is to strengthen policies which are backed by the best available evidence and knowledge in the field [30] Social determinants of health do not exist in a vacuum. Their quality and availability to the population are usually a result of public policy decisions made by governing authorities. For example, early life is shaped by availability of sufficient material resources that assure adequate educational opportunities, food and housing among others. Much of this has to do with the employment security and the quality of working conditions and wages. The availability of quality, regulated childcare is an especially important policy option in support of early life.[31] These are not issues that usually come under individual control. A policy-oriented approach places such findings within a broader policy context. In this context, Health in All Policies has seen as a response to incorporate health and health equity into all public policies as means to foster synergy between sectors and ultimately promote health.

Yet it is not uncommon to see governmental and other authorities individualize these issues. Governments may view early life as being primarily about parental behaviours towards their children. They then focus upon promoting better parenting, assist in having parents read to their children, or urge schools to foster exercise among children rather than raising the amount of financial or housing resources available to families. Indeed, for every social determinant of health, an individualized manifestation of each is available. There is little evidence to suggest the efficacy of such approaches in improving the health status of those most vulnerable to illness in the absence of efforts to modify their adverse living conditions.[32]

One of the recommendations by the CSDH is expanding knowledge - particularly to health care workers.[29]


A recent article outlines the role that "raw power" plays in shaping the distribution of the social determinants of health through public policy action. . Here the business sector is seen as shaping public policy to increase profits as the expense of the population's health. This is a political economy approach that is typically ignored in discussions of the social determinants of health.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Mikkonen, Juha; Raphael, Dennis. "The Canadian Facts".Template:Self-published source
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Commission on Social Determinants of Health (2008). "Closing the Gap in a Generation: Health Equity Through Action on the Social Determinants of Health" (PDF). World Health Organization. Retrieved 2013-03-27.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Wilkins R Marmot M (ed) (2003). "The Social Determinants of Health: The Solid Facts, 2nd ed" (PDF). World Health Organization Europe. Retrieved 2013-03-27.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 World Conference on Social Determinants of Health (2011). "Rio Political Declaration on Social Determinants of Health" (PDF). World Health Organization. Retrieved 2013-03-27.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Brennan Ramirez LK Baker EA Metzler M (2008). "Promoting Health Equity: A Resource to Help Communities Address Social Determinants of Health" (PDF). United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 2013-03-27.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Woolf, S. H. "Social Policy as Health Policy." JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 301.11 (2009): 1166-169. Print.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Marmot, Michael G., and Ruth Bell. "Action on Health Disparities in the United States: Commission on Social Determinants of Health." JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 301.11 (2009): 1169-171. 19 Mar. 2009. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <>.
  9. Labonte R Shrecker T (2007). "Globalization and social determinants of health: The role of the global marketplace (part 2 of 3)". Globalization and Health. 3 (6).
  10. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2007). Health at a Glance 2007, OECD Indicators. Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  11. Townsend, P., Davidson, N., & Whitehead, M. (Eds.). (1992). Inequalities in Health: the Black Report and the Health Divide. New York: Penguin.
  12. Bartley, M. (2003). Understanding Health Inequalities. Oxford UK: Polity Press.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Graham, H. (2007). Unequal Lives: Health and Socioeconomic Inequalities. New York: Open University Press.
  14. Shaw, M., Dorling, D., Gordon, D., & Smith, G. D. (1999). The Widening Gap: Health Inequalities and Policy in Britain. Bristol, UK: The Policy Press.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Brunner, E., & Marmot, M. G. (2006). Social organization, stress, and health. In M. G. Marmot & R. G. Wilkinson (Eds.), Social Determinants of Health (2nd ed., pp. 6-30). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  16. Jarvis, M. J., & Wardle, J. (2003). Social patterning of individual health behaviours: the case of cigarette smoking. In M. G.
  17. Wilkinson, R. G. (1996). Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality. New York: Routledge.
  18. Marmot & R. G. Wilkinson (Eds.), Social Determinants of Health (2nd ed., pp. 224-237). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  19. Lynch, J. W., Smith, G. D., Kaplan, G. A., & House, J. S. (2000). Income inequality and mortality: importance to health of individual income, psychosocial environment, or material conditions. BMJ, 320, 1220-1224.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Kawachi, I., & Kennedy, B. (2002). The Health of Nations: Why Inequality Is Harmful to Your Health. New York: New Press.
  21. Kawachi, I., & Kennedy, B. P. (1997). Socioeconomic determinants of health : Health and social cohesion: why care about income inequality? BMJ, 314(7086), 1037-.
  22. Kumar, Rajiv, and Naveen K. Goel. "Current Status Of Cardiovascular Risk Due To Stress." Internet Journal Of Health 7.1 (2008): 19. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.
  23. Blane, D. (2006). The life course, the social gradient and health. In M. G. Marmot & R. G. Wilkinson (Eds.), Social Determinants of Health (2nd ed., pp. 54-77). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  24. Lawlor, D., Ebrahim, S., & Smith, G. D. (2002). Socioeconomic position in childhood and adulthood and insulin resistance: cross sectional survey using data from British women's heart and health study. British Medical Journal, 325(12), 805-807.
  25. Raphael, D., Anstice, S., & Raine, K. (2003). The social determinants of the incidence and management of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: Are we prepared to rethink our questions and redirect our research activities? Leadership in Health Services, 16, 10-20.
  26. Hertzman, C. (2000). The case for an early childhood development strategy. Isuma, Autumn.
  27. Evans, G. W., and M. A. Schamberg. "Childhood Poverty, Chronic Stress, and Adult Working Memory." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106.16 (2009): 6545-549. Print.
  28. Smeeding, Timothy. "Poor People in Rich Nations: The United States in Comparative Perspective." Journal of Economic Perspectives 20.1 (2006): 69-90. Print.
  29. 29.0 29.1 Farmer, P et al. (2006). Structural Violence and Clinical Medicine . PLoS medicine 3(10): e449 1686-1691.
  30. "Healthy People 2020 Framework" (PDF). United States Department of Health and Human Services. 2010. Retrieved 2013-03-27.
  31. Esping-Andersen, G. (2002). A child-centred social investment strategy. In G. Esping-Andersen (Ed.), Why we need a new welfare state (pp. 26-67). Oxford UK: Oxford University Press.
  32. Raphael, D. (2001). Inequality is Bad for our Hearts: Why Low Income and Social Exclusion are Major Causes of Heart Disease in Canada, from

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