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Social Factors Health

Social Support, Marriage, Religion, Socioeconomic Status

To understand the connection between social factors and health, it is necessary to examine the average level of health of aging people in one social group and then compare this to the average level of health of those in another social group. One's social situation can be examined in several ways including marital status, social class, religiousness, and relationships with others.

If the health of people in one group, such as married individuals, is better on average than the health of those in another, such as widowed persons, one can conclude there is a relationship between that particular marital status and health. Once a relationship is observed, it is important to examine the underlying mechanisms that explain it. First, it is necessary to determine whether health determines one's social position or whether the social position influences health outcomes. If people with certain health problems are not able to attain or remain in a certain social position, researchers say that the underlying mechanism was selection into the social status. In other words, if an existing physical or mental health problem makes it less likely that a person will marry, then that person's health causes his or her marital status. Alternately, if being in a particular social position or group has an effect on one's health, researchers say that something about the social environment associated with that position or group has an effect on health, and they then must investigate further to determine the underlying factors. Information collected at one point in time, however, does not untangle whether one's current social position or one's health status came first. To address this problem, some researchers design studies that follow the same individuals over time, noting the changes in health status and social position over the course of their lives.

Health outcomes are often measured in terms of how a person defines his or her own health, the number of health problems a person has, the amount of disability a person experiences, and the chances a person has of dying—commonly known as mortality. Various social factors may have an effect on health and health outcomes.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 2