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What Are Social Drivers of Health — and How Do They Affect You?

November 05, 2020
When considering the keys to good health, you might mention regular doctor well visits, nutritious foods, and regular exercise. But those aren't the only things that impact your health - for better or worse.
 
In fact, many external factors – often called “drivers of health” or “social determinants of health” – play a key role on your overall health, including:
  • where you live,
  • access to grocery stores and transportation,
  • your social circles and community,
  • your education,
  • your job, and
  • your access to various types of health care.
While many of these factors may be seem beyond our control, by learning about the social and environmental conditions affecting your health, you can also learn what you can do about them.
 
Where You Live
The location of your home and your local resources can have significant impact on the health of you and your neighbors. For example, areas with healthier residents may include easier and greater access to:
  • grocery stores with affordable and healthy food,
  • recreation and exercise options,
  • medical care,
  • clean water and air, and
  • reliable transportation.
Although you may not be able to move to a new neighborhood, you may be able to offset this factor. Government agencies, nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations and others can often help.
 
Neighborhoods that lack stores with affordable or quality fresh food are called “food deserts.” In these areas, buying ingredients for nutritious meals is difficult. Nearly 13 percent of Americans live in an area the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies as a food desert. Those living in these neighborhoods can start personal or community gardens as one way to create fresh food.
 
Exercising can be tough if there are not safe or appealing spaces for recreation nearby. Gyms, community centers, and parks are traditional places to exercise. If your community doesn't have these options, you can look to churches, malls or other spaces for physical activity. Perhaps you can work out with a friend or in a group to feel safer exercising outdoors.
 
Access to health care has expanded with more extensive phone and online options. Yet many medical visits and procedures need to be done in person, which requires transportation. If transportation options are unreliable where you live, your health can be affected. Again, reach out to your community if this applies to you. If public transportation is unreliable, perhaps someone can drive you instead.
 
Where You Work
You may already realize some ways your job and workplace influence your health. Many employers have policies and programs aimed to keep their employees healthy and productive. These can include:
  • health insurance coverage,
  • employee assistance programs and
  • health and safety training for specific job functions.
Some companies go beyond that to create a "culture of health." They might offer healthy food options, health screenings at the workplace, or on-site fitness facilities.
 
Other policies, such as time off allowances and work-from-home flexibility, also matter.
 
Look at the benefits and programs your job offers – you may be able to take advantage of something new.
 
Who You Spend Time With
Our family, friends, and social circles also make a difference in our health. They can affect our habits — like eating, drinking, and smoking — as well as activities. They can also impact our mental health. Research shows strong social connections are important for mental health.
 
Take notice of how your family and friends influence your choices and habits. How do those choices and habits affect your health? If you discover habits you want to change, you may find that others want to make similar changes. That social support can make it easier to adapt. 
 
Learning about the social drivers of health can improve your life. If it seems daunting to consider all the factors that influence your health, focus on one or two easy items first. Starting a discussion with your doctor, for example, is one place to begin. Taking small steps in one part of your life may make a bigger difference on your health than you expect.