Eliminating health disparities is a fundamental, though not always explicit, goal of public health research and practice. There is a burgeoning literature in this area, but a number of unresolved issues remain. These include the definition of what constitutes a disparity, the relationship of different bases of disadvantage, the ability to attribute cause from association, and the establishment of the mechanisms by which social disadvantage affects biological processes that get into the body, resulting in disease. We examine current definitions and empirical research on health disparities, particularly disparities associated with race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status, and discuss data structures and analytic strategies that allow causal inference about the health impacts of these and associated factors. We show that although health is consistently worse for individuals with few resources and for blacks as compared with whites, the extent of health disparities varies by outcome, time, and geographic location within the United States. Empirical work also demonstrates the importance of a joint consideration of race/ethnicity and social class. Finally, we discuss potential pathways, including exposure to chronic stress and resulting psychosocial and physiological responses to stress, that serve as mechanisms by which social disadvantage results in health disparities.
Use of multilevel frameworks and area-based socioeconomic measures (ABSMs) for public health monitoring can potentially overcome the absence of socioeconomic data in most US public health surveillance systems. To assess whether ABSMs can meaningfully be used for diverse race/ethnicity-gender groups, we geocoded and linked public health surveillance data from Massachusetts and Rhode Island to 1990 block group, tract, and zip code ABSMs. Outcomes comprised death, birth, cancer incidence, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections, childhood lead poisoning, and nonfatal weapons-related injuries. Among White, Black, and Hispanic women and men, measures of economic deprivation (e.g., percentage below poverty) were most sensitive to expected socioeconomic gradients in health, with the most consistent results and maximal geocoding linkage evident for tract-level analyses.
The strength of social isolation as a predictor of mortality is similar to that of well-documented clinical risk factors. Our results suggest the importance of assessing patients' level of social isolation.
The heterogeneity of associations is mostly accounted for by study design features that have largely been neglected in this literature. Enhanced attention to size of region and measurement strategies provide a clearer picture of how suicide rates vary by region. Resources for suicide prevention should be targeted to high poverty/deprivation and high unemployment areas.
Although previous systematic reviews considered the relationship between socioeconomic status and obesity, almost 200 peer-reviewed articles have been published since the last review on that topic, and this paper focuses specifically on education, which has different implications.
The authors systematically review the peer-reviewed literature from around the world considering the association between educational attainment and obesity. Databases from public health and medicine, education, psychology, economics, and other social sciences were searched, and articles published in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish were included.
This paper includes 289 articles that report on 410 populations in 91 countries. The relationship between educational attainment and obesity was modified by both gender and the country's economic development level: an inverse association was more common in studies of higher-income countries and a positive association was more common in lower-income countries, with stronger social patterning among women. Relatively few studies reported on lower-income countries, controlled for a comprehensive set of potential confounding variables, and/or attempted to assess causality through the use of quasi-experimental designs.
Future research should address these gaps to understand if the relationship between educational attainment and obesity may be causal, thus supporting education policy as a tool for obesity prevention.
The purpose of this study was to examine the association between socioeconomic status (SES) and leukocyte telomere length (LTL) – a marker of cell aging that has been linked to stressful life circumstances – in a nationally representative, socioeconomically and ethnically diverse sample of US adults aged 20–84. Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 1999–2002, we found that respondents who completed less than a high school education had significantly shorter telomeres than those who graduated from college. Income was not associated with LTL. African-Americans had significantly longer telomeres than whites, but there were no significant racial/ethnic differences in the association between education and telomere length. Finally, we found that the association between education and LTL was partially mediated by smoking and body mass index but not by drinking or sedentary behavior.
BackgroundDebates exist as to whether, as overall population health improves, the absolute and relative magnitude of income- and race/ethnicity-related health disparities necessarily increase—or derease. We accordingly decided to test the hypothesis that health inequities widen—or shrink—in a context of declining mortality rates, by examining annual US mortality data over a 42 year period.Methods and FindingsUsing US county mortality data from 1960–2002 and county median family income data from the 1960–2000 decennial censuses, we analyzed the rates of premature mortality (deaths among persons under age 65) and infant death (deaths among persons under age 1) by quintiles of county median family income weighted by county population size. Between 1960 and 2002, as US premature mortality and infant death rates declined in all county income quintiles, socioeconomic and racial/ethnic inequities in premature mortality and infant death (both relative and absolute) shrank between 1966 and 1980, especially for US populations of color; thereafter, the relative health inequities widened and the absolute differences barely changed in magnitude. Had all persons experienced the same yearly age-specific premature mortality rates as the white population living in the highest income quintile, between 1960 and 2002, 14% of the white premature deaths and 30% of the premature deaths among populations of color would not have occurred.ConclusionsThe observed trends refute arguments that health inequities inevitably widen—or shrink—as population health improves. Instead, the magnitude of health inequalities can fall or rise; it is our job to understand why.
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