Medical science has evolved rapidly. With the newest computing and laboratory technologies, the pace of knowledge generation only increases. Our biggest challenge today is in processing data, and finding the patterns within that can unlock more secrets of life and health.

sep2011_AWSI_03 bigPublic health improvements in the 20th century like sewer systems and a clean water supply, coupled with childhood vaccinations and the advent of antibiotics radically increased the human life span to its all time high–roughly 80 years for men and women in the ‘industrialized’ western world.

Some in the scientific community think an achievable human life span is closer to 120 years; that if we can alter some of the problems caused by senescence and aging, more of us will live past 100. It’s at about 120 years that current science guesses that cellular and tissue breakdown is genetically programmed to occur to such an extent that further life as we know it is near impossible.

As the list of causes of death in the U.S. has changed dramatically over the 20th century, you can now see that much of what kills us is chronic disease. Interestingly, our ability to make inroads on this list has not been as successful as it was in fighting the original infectious causes of death. We manage chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer; very rarely do we cure them. This despite a nearly half century “war on cancer” and billions of dollars spent on research and development in heart disease.

What we’ve come to understand in the medical world, by listening to our social science colleagues, is that social factors have a profound impact on our health — such that the World Health Organization estimates that medical care (over which we spend $3 trillion annually in the U.S.) only impacts about 10% of our health. It’s the social (non-medical) factors that play an outsize role in our health as individuals and communities.

NPR Health ran a short series of radio stories and web posts called “What Shapes Health” that looked at these phenomena. They’re well worth indulging in if you didn’t catch them when they aired. Among the highlights:

  • What is an adverse childhood experience (“ACE”) and how does it impact your future health? Take a short quiz and get your own ACE score.
  • Survey research showing that people with lower incomes perceive that they pay a price with poorer health. Not surprising news, but important knowledge of the effects of inequality.
  • Housing impacts health…in a big way. If you don’t have housing, can’t afford it, or live in housing that is unsafe or substandard, in all likelihood you will die younger than others in your age cohort.

Each of these social factors (and another HUGE one: education) lead to that amorphous concept we call “stress.” It has real impact, and quite frankly we’re only in our infancy of being able to quantify what it does to us. Stay tuned.