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Glossary

Researchers and policy makers use a lot of jargon to describe the social determinants of health. Here, we offer some handy definitions.

Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs)

Allostatic load

Behavioral risk factors

Birthrate

Broken Windows effect

Bullying

Collective efficacy

Contextualized risk factors

Developmental origins of health and disease

Eco-epidemiology

Environmental injustice

Epigenetics

Federal poverty level

Fidelity of health care delivery

Financial navigator

Food desert

Food stamp cycle

Gender identity

Gini index

Gerontogen

Health behaviors

Health disparities

Health equity

Health literacy

Health impact assessment (HIA)

Health in all policies (HiAP)

Housing First

Income inequality

Lead toxicity

Life expectancy

Lifestyle drift

Millennial

Population health

Premature mortality

Public health

Reserve capacity

Rural

SES-health gradient

Sexual orientation

Socioeconomic status (SES)

Social determinants of health

Structural determinants

Telomeres

Traumatic stress injury

Uncontrollable risk factor

Upstream medicine

Urban

Weathering hypothesis

Wellness trust

Whitehall Study

Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs)

Traumatic childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect and household dysfunction can have an impact on health as well as behavior and learning.  Such experiences can include physical neglect and emotional abuse to family issues involving substance abuse or mental illness. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ACEs have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions and even early death, with the risk for such outcomes increasing with the number of adverse events a child experiences. While researchers are still studying the link between such events in childhood and health as an adult, ACEs are preventable.

Allostatic load

The theory that the accumulated burden of chronic stress creates a common pathway to the onset and progression of many different diseases. Measures of allostatic load reflect how well or poorly the cardiovascular, metabolic, nervous, hormonal and immune systems are functioning, with higher scores indicating greater vulnerability to illness. Scores are based on readings of blood pressure, body mass index, kidney function, blood sugar, cholesterol, C-reactive protein and other tests.

Behavioral risk factors

Habits such as smoking, inactivity, poor diet, and drug or alcohol abuse change a person’s vulnerability to illness and account for some of the health differences between people of different social classes. But people in poorer communities also are likely to face more environmental hazards and more stressful living conditions while having fewer resources to deal with their effects.

Birthrate

The rate at which a population bears children, often broken down in data by race, age, marital status and other factors. Sometimes also referred to as the “fertility rate.”

Broken Windows effect

The so-called Broken Windows theory has led to initiatives that try to reduce violence by restoring deteriorating neighborhoods, removing or securely sealing abandoned buildings, and greening vacant lots. The idea is that abandoned places give cover to criminal activity and signal that no one is in control. Researchers have found significant associations between the risk of violent assault and the presence of abandoned buildings and vacant lots, even after controlling for demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the neighborhoods. But it’s not yet clear if property restoration efforts are an effective way to reduce crime.

Bullying

Bullying is defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as unwanted aggressive behavior such as hitting, tripping, name calling, teasing, spreading rumors or shunning. Although schools have historically served as the center for bullying, it has evolved outside those walls in the Internet age and social media in which a single act can be repeated and viewed endlessly. Such behaviors, according to the CDC, can lead to health problems such as injury, emotional distress, depression and sleep disorders. Vulnerable populations include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth as well as young people with developmental disabilities or health problems, and those living in poverty, according to a 2016 NAS report. Ethnicity can also be a factor in conjunction with a school’s racial and ethnic make-up, NAS concluded.

Collective efficacy

The willingness of neighbors to band together for the common good - their collective efficacy - is tightly linked to levels of neighborhood violence. The higher the collective efficacy, the lower the violence. The lack of collective efficacy may largely explain why people living in poor neighborhoods are more likely to be victims of violent crime. Collective efficacy requires a foundation of social cohesion, or trust and respect, among community residents, combined with their ability to share resources and respond to negative situations. A number of cities are testing ways to mobilize collective efficacy as a way to improve public health.

Contextualized risk factors

Behavioral risk factors can be influenced by social, cultural, and economic forces. In some poor neighborhoods, for example, tobacco and liquor advertising is prominent, lack of safe or convenient parks discourages outdoor recreation and most of the food offered for sale is unhealthy.

Developmental origins of health and disease

From conception through infancy and early childhood, exposures to certain stresses can alter the trajectory of development in ways that increase vulnerability to disease in adulthood. Exposure to endocrine disruptor chemicals in the womb, for example, or a disadvantaged mother’s poor diet can modify an infant’s lifelong disease risk. These early life exposures may act in subtle ways. They don’t have to grossly disrupt development or directly trigger disease to make people more vulnerable to heart disease, weight gain and other health problems decades later. One way this happens is through epigenetic processes that change the activity of genes.

Eco-epidemiology

Preventive health efforts that focus on identifying high-risk individuals are bound to provide only short-term improvements because the unchanged conditions of the environment will continue to produce new high-risk people, allowing a cycle of poor health to persist. Eco-epidemiology refers to an expanded scope for the study of disease prevention that includes multiple levels of causation – including the social environment – acting over lifetimes. Advocates say this approach should yield widespread protection and enhanced health with less reliance on personal behavior change.

Environmental injustice

The disproportionate burden of pollution and other harmful environmental exposures falling mainly on disadvantaged neighborhoods and people with less wealth, social status, and influence.

Epigenetics

Stressful experiences can change how genes function, an effect called “epigenetic” modification. Such changes may influence the susceptibility to chronic diseases. Epigenetic modification is not a mutation of the DNA sequence, rather it is a change in the regulatory systems that turn a gene on and off. Epigenetic changes in gene expression can be short-term or enduring, and some can be transmitted across generations.

Federal poverty level

This U.S. government metric, updated annually, is used to help determine eligibility for certain federal programs, such as subsidies under the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. Unlike the poverty statistics issued annually by the Census Bureau, the Federal Poverty Level is an administrative guidelines issued by the Department of Human Services. For 2015, the measure was $11,700 for an individual and $24,250 for a family of four, although Alaska and Hawaii have higher allowances.

Fidelity of health care delivery

Medical research and development spending goes overwhelmingly to developing new treatments, leaving comparatively little for improving the “fidelity” of medical services, that is, the extent to which health systems give patients appropriate tests and treatments when they are needed. (Only about half of adults in the U.S. receive all the recommended preventive care and screening tests, by one recent estimate). Neglecting the fidelity of health care to spend more on new drugs and devices may cost lives. For example, researchers found that the billions of dollars invested in developing anti-clotting drugs more potent than aspirin may have prevented fewer strokes than just making sure that all at-risk people took aspirin.

Financial navigator

Specially-trained social workers are increasing being employed as so-called “financial navigators” to help patients sort through the funding of their health care . Their primary role is to help ensure that patients understand their insurance coverage and related options. Such navigators are often increasingly utilized in cancer care, which can involve expensive and lengthy treatments.

Food desert

Urban neighborhoods and rural areas with few or no grocery stores selling fresh, affordable produce have earned the catchy nickname “food deserts.” The term seems to have originated in Scotland in the early 1990s, but quickly gained worldwide use among academics, policy makers, and advocates.  There is a mountain of evidence showing that low-income and minority Americans are more likely to live in “food deserts.” But it’s not at all clear to what extent the lack of supermarkets and grocery stores contributes to obesity or other health outcomes.

Food stamp cycle

Women who receive food stamps are more likely to be overweight and some researchers think it has to do with a feast-or-famine cycle. When food stamp benefits run out at the end of the month, mothers in food-insecure families may go hungry for several days to provide enough for children. When benefits are restored, these women may overeat. Overeating when palatable food is plentiful, followed by a short period of involuntary food restriction, followed by overeating, could be a pattern that results in gradual weight gain over time, but the evidence is largely circumstantial.

Gender identity

Generally defined as how one sees their gender and how they express and call themselves, whether it is male, female, neither of those or a combination. Children can generally identify their own gender as young as age two or three. Transgender individuals are those who identify as something other than their sex at birth. Agender, or non-binary, individuals identify with no particular gender.

Gerontogen

People’s bodies succumb to the effects of aging at different rates, and environmental exposures seem to play a much bigger role than genes. (Only about one quarter of human longevity is heritable). George Martin, a physician-scientist at the University of Washington, coined the term ‘gerontogen’ for any environmental exposure or toxicant that accelerates aging. According to the theory, varying exposure to largely unknown gerontogens explains much of the non-genetic variation in the rates of human physiological aging.

Gini index

A widely used measure of income inequality. Perfectly equal distribution would yield a value of 1 on the Gini index, while a value of 0 would indicate that one person commanded all of the income. The United States currently scores around 0.47. That’s 18 percent higher than in 1967, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Sweden, Denmark and Norway, the wealthy countries with the most equal distribution of income, score around 0.25. South Africa and a few other African countries score higher than 0.63.

Health behaviors

The choices and behaviors that people and their communities make can have a profound impact on individuals’ and community health. Health behaviors play a role in a range of health conditions and issues such as HIV/AIDS, smoking, obesity, pregnancy, communicable diseases and even early detection of cancer. Alcohol and drug use, injuries and medication adherence are also impacted by health behavior. At the community level, health behavior can be impacted by available resources and conditions such as access to green space or grocery stores. Tied closely with health promotion, researchers also focus on the role of advertising and media in impacting behaviors that can impact heath. 

Health disparities

Differences in health status experienced by groups of people disadvantaged because of their race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, age, mental health, physical disability, sexual orientation, geographic location, or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.

Health equity

An ideal envisioned by public health experts in which all people can achieve their best health without being disadvantaged by various factors. The goal is for people to have the same and equal opportunities in order to reach their full health potential. However, social determinants such as economic, social or environmental issues can lead to differences that can create gaps among different groups of people, or health disparities.

Health literacy

Understanding health comes in many forms. On one level, it relates to one’s ability to access and understand information needed to make appropriate health decisions. At the same time, it also includes the ability of health providers and their institutions to provide accessible and meaningful information.

Health impact assessment (HIA)

A systematic assessment of the potential effects that a government program or project may have on the health of a population. HIAs are supposed to help policy makers avoid unintended harmful effects and take advantage of opportunities to promote health.

Health in all policies (HiAP) 

This public health strategy emerged in Europe and is now gaining traction in the U.S. It calls upon political leaders and policy makers to explicitly consider the health impact of the priorities they set in education, taxes, recreation, transportation, housing, and other arenas beyond strictly defined health care or public health.

Housing First

People who are homeless face many health threats and are among the heaviest users of hospital services. Housing First is a public health strategy based on the idea that secure, affordable housing is a necessary first step to care effectively for people with chronic mental health and substance abuse problems who live on the streets. See also: Housing as health care

Income inequality

Also known as the wealth gap, the divide between the rich and the poor has come to broadly define income inequality. Such gaps are measured based on household disposable income, most notably by the Gini index, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Sometimes called "economic inequality," the wealth gap can vary from county to county, state to state and even nation by nation, and offers an indication of how resources are spread in a society.

Lead toxicity

Sustained exposure to lead can cause long-term health problems, most notably neurological damage. While no level of lead in the blood is safe, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “advisory” level for concern is 10 µg/dL to 5 µg/dL for children and adults. Other U.S. agencies, however, have set their own level for acceptable lead levels – in the blood, air, food, water, soil and paint – that would trigger regulatory action. A known toxin, lead can impact brain development and cause behavioral problems, particularly among children. Its health impacts are cumulative.

Life expectancy

The effects of social class on health are often measured by comparing life expectancy, the average number of years of life remaining at a given age, based on the current mortality rate for the population. For example, the average life expectancy at birth among African American men in the District of Columbia – 63 years – is 17 years less than that of white men in adjacent Montgomery County, Md.

Lifestyle drift

Initiatives that set out to tackle health inequalities often pay lip service to the social determinants of health (quality education, safe neighborhoods, reliable employment). But public health officials tend to drift “downstream” to focus on individual behaviors (smoking, diet, alcohol, drugs) and to ignore the “upstream” drivers of these behaviors — the fundamental causes.

Millennial

Members of this generation of young adults include those born between 1992 and 2000. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 83.1 million Millennials in 2014, representing more than 25 percent of the U.S. population.

Population health

A term used in the health assessment of an entire group of people. “Population” often refers to those in a certain geographic area or with the same characteristics, but it can also refer to those cared for by a particular health care provider or whose care is covered by the same insurer or other payer. Additionally, it could refer to primary care patients or another set of patients in the health care system. Although sometimes interchanged with the term public health, it invokes a broader connotation regarding efforts to promote health and prevent disease. 

Premature mortality

An alternative way to compare the health of different populations is to add up the potential years life lost (PYLL) due to premature death, defined by a standard cut-off age. If the standard age is defined as 70, a death at age 5 counts as 65 potential years of life lost, while a death at age 60 counts as 10 potential years of life lost.

Public health

Although sometimes used interchangeably with the term population health, “public health” is increasingly used to reference a narrower set of actions linked to or taken by official government agencies and other organizations.

Reserve capacity

Higher social standing may help people build psychological resources, or a reserve capacity, to cope with stressors more resiliently so as to minimize damaging physiological responses.

Rural

In general, “rural” refers to places outside of a city, or as HHS’s Health Resources and Services Administration puts it: “Whatever is not urban is considered rural.” But that leaves out areas such as the suburbs or mostly-rural counties with one city center. The federal government uses more than 15 different definitions for “rural,” according to the Rural Policy Research Institute. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget defines it as a county that does not have an urban core of 50,000 people, so it could include areas with some denser “micropolitan” areas. The U.S. Census Bureau, however, does not use county or other borders, and defines rural as any area that falls outside one with 50,000 or more people or one with a densely settled core of between 2,500 and 49,999 people.  Whether an area is classified as rural can impact health policy, for example in determining eligibility for certain grants.

SES-health gradient

Health and longevity tend to decrease with poverty and social isolation, and increase with wealth and social status. This link between socioeconomic status and health, the SES-health gradient, persists even among people in the middle and upper ranges of social advantage, many studies have shown.

Sexual orientation

Sometimes confused with gender identify, sexual orientation refers to one’s attraction to other people based on their sex. Heterosexuals are those attracted to someone of the opposite sex. Homosexuals are attracted to someone of the same biological sex, although the term has fallen out of favor – gay or lesbian is the one now used by the AP Stylebook, although it is still used in some medical terminology. Bisexuals are those attracted to both male and females.

Socioeconomic status (SES)

A person’s social class, or place in the hierarchy of power and self-determination can be quantified using measures of socioeconomic status. The typical measures are proxies such as years of education, income level, occupation, and sometimes residential location.

Social determinants of health

The conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age are mostly responsible for health inequalities—the unfair and avoidable differences in health that divide populations. Economic and social disadvantage make people more vulnerable to illness, disability, suffering, and premature death. For convenience, researchers studying the social determinants of health tend to focus on a limited set of markers of social status, such as income, education, occupation, race or ethnicity, and neighborhood qualities (home ownership, property values, degree of segregation).

Structural determinants

Social determinants of health (income, education, social class, etc.) are sometimes referred to as “structural determinants” by those who want to emphasize their primary role in shaping health inequalities. Structural determinants exert their effects through intermediary determinants such as housing and neighborhood quality, stressful living circumstances, access to care and support, and health behaviors.

Telomeres

Social disadvantage appears to accelerate aging at the cellular level as indicated by the length of telomeres, the protective sections of DNA at the tips of chromosomes that shorten with age. For example, children who experience chronic stress from a disadvantaged life have shorter telomeres than their advantaged peers, according to a recent study of 9-year-old African-American boys. Adults who completed less than a high school education had significantly shorter telomeres than those who graduated from college, in another study. The evidence is far from conclusive, however. Some investigators have found inconsistent correlations between telomere length and socioeconomic status.

Traumatic stress injury

Some military experts, psychiatrists and other advocates have been pushing for the renaming of post-traumatic stress disorder to post traumatic stress injury, or TSI, as a way to reduce stigma and increase treatment.  Although the American Psychiatric Association did not adopt the term when it revised its mental illness manual in 2013, the term is still used among some veterans groups, clinicians and others who say it helps people seek care.

Uncontrollable risk factor

While there are some things people can do that can either increase or decrease their risk for disease, there are other factors that can have an impact but cannot be controlled. These include age, gender and race as well as other heredity factors that are part of one’s genetic make-up that show up in family history or DNA testing.

Upstream medicine

The U.S. health care system is really more of a “sick care” system. Recognizing this, some health professionals have started trying to assess and improve the “upstream” social and environmental conditions that shape health outcomes. The movement gets its name from a parable about children being swept down a river. Rescuers make heroic efforts to save one child after another from drowning until finally it dawns on them to venture upstream to stop whoever is throwing the children in the river.  The upstream movement is exemplified by HealthBegins, an online community founded by Dr. Rishi Manchanda, author of the book The Upstream Doctors; and the Canadian nonprofit Upstream, directed by Dr. Ryan Meili, a family physician in Saskatoon.

Urban

Cities in America have sprawled so much that researchers call them “metropolitan statistical areas,” or MSAs. Urban areas are less based on exact city boundaries and more on density to include a wide swath of surrounding suburbs. U.S. federal agencies define metropolitan areas as those with a “core” of more than 50,000 people. That could be a city, or a larger area covering several counties in a state. Specifically, the U.S. Census Bureau also recognizes urban “clusters” that include areas that have at least 2,500 but less than 50,000 people. The New York-Newark area is the nation’s most populated urban area, according to the 2010 Census, followed by the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim area, and the Chicago area.

Weathering hypothesis

Some evidence suggests that greater exposure to adverse social conditions and physical environments produces a chronic stress response that over time accelerates wear and tear on physiological systems. This “weathering” hypothesis has been proposed to explain why African American women who give birth in their twenties face greater risk of infant death than those who give birth as teenagers. The opposite is true for most other women in the United States, who face greater risk as teenagers.

Wellness trust

Finding traditional health systems ineffective at addressing the social determinants of health, some communities are trying to establish public trust funds to help deliver preventive health and support. The Prevention and Wellness Trust Fund of Massachusetts is probably the most ambitious to date. The Trust has $60 million to spend over four years on grants to communities, health care providers, regional-planning agencies, employers and other entities. The money comes from a tax on insurers and an assessment on large hospital systems.

Whitehall Study

The Whitehall Study of British Civil Servants, started in 1967, famously showed that men in the lower employment grades were more likely to die prematurely than men in the higher grades. Whitehall II, launched in 1984, is tracking a larger group and includes women.