Your Degree, Job, and Chronic Stress: Addressing the Social Determinants of Health

Today is the first post from our 2017-18 Autry Fellow, Rishi Jaswaney. We’re happy to have him at MDC and writing for the State of the South blog!

We’ve all felt it before. That sinking feeling before a big exam, an interview, or when your favorite character on Game of Thrones is “removed from casting” in the throes of battle.

Stress. Side-effects may include: nausea, indigestion, headaches and excessive perspiration.

In limited amounts, stress can motivate us to pursue our personal and professional goals. As stressors pass in and out of our lives, the stress hormone, cortisol, naturally fluctuates, but as challenges persist, cortisol levels remain elevated. When stress is a chronic condition, it can be linked to anxiety, depression, and other developmental and psychological issues. Research documenting income-based patterns in health outcomes—including disparities in who is more likely to experience chronic stress—raises new questions regarding the state of health equity in our nation.

As seen in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) chart below, serious psychological distress is associated with severe health problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, and diabetes. Even more concerning is the disproportionate clustering of these conditions in high-poverty communities, as reported by the CDC: “A total of 8.7 percent of adults with income below the federal poverty level had serious psychological distress, compared with 1.2 percent of adults with incomes at or above 400 percent of the poverty level.”

The daily economic, educational, and social challenges facing those in poverty can create barriers to health services and lead to poorer health outcomes. This idea is captured in the Social Determinants of Health framework, which The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined as the “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.” The general argument is that people in high poverty communities are more susceptible to certain illnesses, have less access to health care providers, and are frequently forced to delay care or medicine for financial reasons. The proximity of clinics, public transportation options, and the quality of food vendors, all affect one’s ability to address health concerns and seek care. As the social determinants of health concept has taken hold, organizations like Kaiser Family Foundation have adopted more nuanced definitions, incorporating more detailed categories, as shown below.

The WHO and others have emphasized how money, power, and the distribution of resources (through institutional decisions and policy implementation) shape community conditions and drive health outcomes. In places where education, employment, and accessibility are falling behind national averages, health outcomes are trailing along with them. For example, in North Carolina, counties with the lowest rates of postsecondary attainment and employment (Robeson and Warren counties) also rank poorly on measures of low birthweight, obesity, and diabetes prevalence. Counties with the highest rates of postsecondary attainment and employment (Wake and Orange counties) have the lowest rates of these indicators.

Source: National County Health Rankings

Source: National County Health Rankings

If education and employment are key drivers of upward economic mobility, then people must be healthy enough to take advantage of these opportunities. There are many narratives about educational attainment as a predictor of health outcomes. Formal education often provides foundational principles of nutrition, healthy behaviors, and general health literacy. Education is also an avenue for insurance benefits through school plans or future employment opportunities.  Lastly, education provides individuals with an intangible set of resources such as social networks, norms, and relationships that can cultivate healthy practices.

It is important to recognize that poorer health outcomes in high poverty areas have been driven by policy that marginalizes low-income communities. The provisions of the Affordable Care Act made strides in addressing issues of healthcare access, but in order to holistically address health equity, we must also consider the underlying environmental, social, and economic factors that enable good health. Improving preventative initiatives, health education, and access to nutritious foods are a few measures that could begin to eliminate these disparities, improve public health, and encourage, rather than hinder, economic mobility. Throughout my Autry year with MDC, I hope to continue shedding light on the social determinants of health that persistently marginalize low-income communities. Stay tuned for more posts on how these issues play out in Southern communities!