The World Health Organization describes social determinants of health as the physical, environmental, and socioeconomic factors — such as access to healthcare, higher education, social support systems, housing, and transportation — that affect people’s overall quality of life.

Social determinants of health can affect people’s physical, mental, and social well-being in positive and negative ways.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some of the top social determinants of health are:

  • financial and economic security
  • education
  • food security
  • housing and physical environment
  • community and social safety, including discrimination

Often, these factors play an important role in the cost of medical care and a person’s health status and life expectancy.

This article discusses the different types of social determinants of health, including the significant role they play in influencing a person’s health. It also looks at the impact of social determinants of health as compared to other factors, such as lifestyle habits.

While lifestyle factors such as eating a healthy diet and attending annual checkups can affect a person’s overall health, the social determinants of health have an even greater impact.

A study published in The American Journal of Managed Care found that socioeconomic factors such as unemployment, lack of housing, and limited access to healthcare have a bigger impact on overall health costs than lifestyle factors do.

According to a 2016 economic analysis by The Hamilton Project, higher income earners are more likely to have better health outcomes.

Access to quality medical care, the ability to purchase healthy foods, and the ability to pay one’s bills on time all improve with economic stability.

However, around 1 in 10 people in the United States live in poverty, which can prevent them from accessing essential resources and healthy behaviors.

In fact, according to some older research, poverty has the most significant impact on life expectancy rates, especially for people living at less than 200% of the federal poverty line.

A 2015 study published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy found that people eligible for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) are able to increase their household incomes, which allows for improvements in health.

For example, low income households that received EITC payments had better access to prenatal care, which led to higher birth weights in babies and better physical health for birthing parents.

Another root cause of health and socioeconomic inequities is education.

A person’s access to education throughout their life plays a pivotal role in their physical and mental health.

In a 2020 study, researchers found a strong association between education and health in older adults. This suggests that better education throughout a person’s life results in better health outcomes as they age.

Racial discrimination, unsafe housing conditions, and physical environment are other factors that can affect a person’s academic success.

Additionally, a lack of financial resources is more likely to create barriers to education and put people at a greater risk of unemployment or lower wage jobs. Lack of access to well-paying jobs also means people are more likely to live on a lower income and have trouble accessing healthcare services. This can increase the risk of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and hypertension.

Approximately 33.8 million people experience food insecurity in their households in the U.S. each year.

An inability to feed oneself or one’s family directly affects health.

People who experience food insecurity are more likely to have:

  • difficulty eating a balanced diet
  • nutritional deficiencies
  • fewer fruits and vegetables in their diet

Additionally, according to a 2015 study published in Health Education Research, unmet food needs can negatively affect mental health, leading to psychological stress and depression.

Other factors — such as losing a job, lack of transportation, and living in a food desert — can also affect a person’s ability to eat a nutritious diet.

A stable home and neighborhood can have a lasting positive effect on people.

In addition, research suggests that sufficient access to green spaces and playgrounds can improve community engagement and physical activity levels, leading to better health outcomes.

However, most people in the U.S. experience the opposite. Many grow up without access to clean air and water or in neighborhoods with high crime rates.

Homelessness is another factor that can directly impact a person’s health.

According to the CDC, people without housing are at higher risk for infectious diseases such as hepatitis C, tuberculosis, and COVID-19.

Additionally, a 2022 study of homelessness across the U.S. found that, of emergency department cases involving people without housing, 43% involved substance use disorders, 25% involved hypertension, and 20% involved major depression.

Discrimination is a social determinant of health that disproportionately affects the health and well-being of people based on their gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, weight, and socioeconomic status.

Discrimination can occur on an interpersonal level and on a systemic level. For example, in August 2022, the U.S. unemployment rate for Black people was 6.4%, compared to 3.2% for white people and 2.8% for Asian people.

Additionally, research indicates that people who work in environments rife with discrimination are more likely to have poor mental and physical health.

Social determinants of health are nonmedical factors that affect people’s physical health and mental well-being. They are different from lifestyle factors, which people may be able to change.

Often, social determinants of health, such as food security, income, housing, and education, are interconnected and influence one another.

For example, children in low income households are more likely to lack access to pivotal learning opportunities. This can lead to lower paying jobs and a greater risk of food insecurity in the future.

Acknowledging the critical role social determinants of health play in life is vital to improving health equity.