The Social Determinants of Health: What Are They, and What Impact Do They Have on Health?

The Social Determinants of Health: What Are They, and What Impact Do They Have on Health?

Our health status is often a consequence of our age, inherited genetics, and behavioral decisions. However, there are other, often overlooked influences such as where we live, how much money we make, who we spend our time with, and the quality of our air, food, and water, which have major impacts on our overall health status. These “other” contributing factors are known as the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) and, until recently, were left out of the health equation. Today, instead of being an afterthought, the SDOH are leading the conversation on how we can achieve both personal and population health.

What are the Social Determinants of Health?

As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) defines the SDOH as:

“The conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power, and resources at global, national, and local levels. The social determinants of health are mostly responsible for health inequities – the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries.”

Essentially, these conditions are shaped by the amount of money, influence, and resources people have. An individual’s status can be affected by factors such as their education, occupation, or income. SDOH factors related to health outcomes include:

  • Access to early childhood development resources
  • Level and quality of education
  • Ability to get and keep a job
  • Occupation
  • Access to nutritious foods
  • Access to health services and the quality of those services
  • Living conditions including secure housing, safe communities, clean water, and air
  • Personal and household wealth
  • Social norms and attitudes (including discrimination, racism, and distrust of government)
  • Residential segregation (physical separation of races/ethnicities into different neighborhoods)
  • Social and community resources and support
  • Language and literacy
  • Incarceration
  • Culture (general customs and beliefs of a particular group of people)
  • Access to mass media and emerging technologies (cell phones, connected devices, and the Internet)

How can addressing the SDOH improve physical and behavioral health?

Without addressing SDOH, it is nearly impossible to achieve health equity – where all people can reach their full health potential and no one is at a disadvantage because of their socially-determined circumstances.

Access to resources that enhance the quality of life can have a big impact on population health outcomes. Safe and affordable housing, access to education, public safety, availability of healthy foods, and local emergency and health services are critical to ensure health equity. Healthy People 2020 lists “social and physical environments that promote good health for all” as one of their four overarching goals for the coming decade.

Find CDC programs and tools to tackle SDOH

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continuously works to improve people’s lives by lowering the number of health injustices. Health organizations, institutions, and education programs are also urged to address underlying factors related to SDOH.

The CDC has a variety of programs that work across sectors such as housing, education, and transportation, and in partnership with communities to make a positive impact on health. All of their current initiatives can be found here.

Differences in health are striking in communities with excessive SDOH. By taking what we know about SDOH, we can improve individual and population health and advance health equity.