How Social Determinants Impact Overall Health

One of the primary areas of emphasis within the current climate of the U.S. healthcare industry revolves around a clear-cut question that invokes a rather complex discussion. 

How can we – as researchers, doctors, nurses, and others in the medical field – create physical, social and psychological environments that effectively promote and provide the healthiest possible lifestyles for our society?

The general consensus has traditionally been that our overall health is dependent upon access to effective medical care. But in reality, new findings are proving the theory to be outdated and far from the truth. Advancements in preventive medicine have placed focal aspects of human health underneath a magnifying glass – paving way for comprehensive research that continues to reveal underlying truths about various societal health issues (cancer, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, mental health, dementia and Alzheimer’s). We now know that medical care isn’t the forefront factor in our overall health. In fact, it’s actually viewed as the least influential aspect. Surprising, right?

Insert social determinants into the picture.

What are social determinants? In short, they’re the conditions in which individuals are born, grow, live, work and age in. Studies have found that these determinants influence 90 percent of our life expectancy, mortality, morbidity, functional limitations, health care expenditures and health status. Medical care, on the other hand, impacts just 10 percent.

Environmental Factors

An individual’s overall health is impacted by their habitat. For children, living in low-income poverty-ridden areas increases their chances of growing up with a malnourished diet that affects their physical development; compared to those who were raised in a financially stable environment. The parents of these children simply cannot afford an ample budget for access to healthy food options, creating what’s known as a “health barrier” for both the parent AND child. Gym memberships, nutritionists and youth sports leagues all cost money, which – unfortunately – isn’t always readily available, and inner-city neighborhoods often lack resources like parks and facilities that are open to the public.

Children born into families where the parents have not completed high school are more susceptible to living in environments that pose health risks such as lack of safety, pollution, substandard housing and more. 


In these low-income areas, another barrier derives from a lack of access to health-related educational opportunities. Typically, there isn’t a wide variety of health awareness programs available in low-income areas and, in turn, people are not put in a position to learn how to take a proactive role in their own health.  

However, efforts are being made to combat the dilemma. According to a report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, there are numerous national initiatives in the works that focus on implementing coordinated strategies across different sectors in neighborhoods with social, economic, and environmental barriers that lead to poor health outcomes and health disparities. For example, the report cites an initiative called The Harlem Children’s Zone Project that identifies children within a 100-block area in Harlem, N.Y. that had chronic disease and infant mortality rates that exceeded the rates of other sections of the city. The project then aims to provide resources that aid in minimizing the health disparity gap.

Healthy Behaviors

Although healthy behaviors are the most manageable social determinant, individuals often find themselves on the wrong end of them. Each person has a choice to establish either positive or negative everyday habits play affect their overall health. These habits are easily identifiable, as well.

  • Positive: Constant exercise, nutritious diet, healthy sleeping patterns, vitamin use, work-life balance
  • Negative: Smoking, alcohol consumption, drug abuse, poor diet, lack of sleep, stress

It can appear challenging, but these behaviors are controllable through accountability and self-discipline. If you’re a smoker, gradually decrease your daily cigarette intake until you can completely eliminate them for your life. Drinking too much? Consider seeking professional help and attending an Alcohol Anonymous class. Poor diet? Find some healthy options you can cook at home instead of eating out. Stress from work? Talk to your boss about a decreased role that establishes a better work-life balance. There’s always a solution!