How Social Determinants of Health Affect Your Life

In this article...
  • Social determinants of health (SDOH) may have a bigger impact on your overall health and well-being than you know. Learn how SDOH can affect your health outcomes during COVID-19 and beyond, and find out what you can do to stay healthy.

When you think about your health, you probably think about genetics, eating healthy, exercising and seeing your doctor regularly for checkups. However, 50% of health outcomes are actually driven by something else: Social determinants of health (SDOH).1

SDOH refers to the social, economic and environmental factors that may drive your health and well-being.

What Do Social Determinants of Health Mean in the COVID-19 Pandemic?

For older adults, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the impact of many social determinants, particularly social isolation and loneliness. Thirty-seven percent of Medicare beneficiaries said they feel less socially connected to family and friends since the coronavirus pandemic began. Twenty-three percent said they feel more lonely or sad.2

This data is important because social isolation and loneliness have been linked to many physical and mental health problems including heart disease, diabetes, anxiety and depression. Identifying and addressing the social determinants that affect you directly can help you make improvements to become and stay healthy.

What Are Examples of Social Determinants of Health?

The federal government’s Healthy People 2030 initiative, which provides 10-year, measurable public health objectives, groups social determinants into these five domains:

  1. Economic stability
  2. Education access and quality
  3. Healthcare access and quality
  4. Neighborhood and built environment
  5. Social and community context

For example, consider your zip code. If you live in a metropolitan area, you may have easier access to physicians; however, you might also struggle with lack of easy access to grocery stores that sell nutritious foods. In addition, you might have asthma from poor air quality due to traffic and pollution.

On the other hand, if you live in a rural area, you may have a harder time accessing a doctor, but you also probably have greater exposure to clean air that prevents certain health complications.

Income is another example of an SDOH. Research consistently shows that individuals living in poverty are at higher risk for chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity. They also face a significantly lower life expectancy.3

Why Are Social Determinants Important?

By recognizing and addressing social determinants, your doctor can help you improve your health and help you avoid costly emergency department visits and hospitalizations. When your doctor overlooks your social determinants of health, they overlook a big piece of the puzzle in terms of helping you maintain a healthy lifestyle.

For example, let’s say you are socially isolated because you live by yourself. To improve your health outcomes, your doctor can connect you with community resources and virtual events to enhance your social cohesion. Likewise, they can suggest virtual and home-based exercise activities (rather than walking outside) if you live in a relatively unsafe neighborhood. Identifying social determinants helps your doctor help you.

How Does My Doctor Collect Information About My Social Determinants Of Health?

Your doctor, nurse, or medical assistant may ask you to fill out a questionnaire during your annual wellness exam, or they may ask you questions directly to try and gain a better understanding of the SDOH that may play a role in your health.

Can I Change My Social Determinants Of Health?

Yes, you can personally change many of your social health determinants. For example, you can move to a new city or town where you have access to safe walking trails to get better exercise. You can connect with an elder services organization that can provide transportation to and from doctor’s appointments if you’re unable to drive. You can learn how to use Zoom so you can stay connected virtually with family and friends.

Your doctor can help you problem-solve many of the challenges you face and set you on the right course for a healthy life. Even if you’re unable to go into the office for an appointment, you can still take advantage of a telehealth visit.

In addition, your Medicare Advantage plan may offer supplemental benefits that include a wide range of services from providing meals to installing air purifiers or cleaning carpeting for patients with asthma. Contact your specific Medicare plan carrier (or other insurance provider if you don’t have Medicare) to learn more about these benefits and whether you’re eligible.

  1. Hood, C. et al. (Oct. 30, 2015). County Health Rankings. American Journal of Preventive Medicine,50(2): 129-135.

  2. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). (Oct. 2020). COVID-19 Experiences Among the Medicare Population.

  3. Chetty, Raj. et al. (April 26, 2016). The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001-2014. Jama, 315(16): 1750-1766. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.4226.

About the Author

Lisa Eramo is an independent health care writer whose work appears in the Journal of the American Health Information Management Association, Healthcare Financial Management Association, For The Record Magazine, Medical Economics, Medscape and more.

Lisa studied creative writing at Hamilton College and obtained a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University. She is a member of the American Health Information Management Association, American Academy of Professional Coders, Society of Professional Journalists, Association of Health Care Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Lisa currently resides in Cranston, Rhode Island with her wife and two-year-old twin boys.

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