2
Understanding Population Health and Its Determinants

For most people, thinking about health and health care is a very personal issue. Assuring the health of the public, however, goes beyond focusing on the health status of individuals; it requires a population health approach. As noted in Chapter 1, America’s health status does not match the nation’s substantial health investments. The work of assuring the nation’s health also faces dramatic change, systemic problems, and challenging societal norms and influences. Given these issues, the committee believes that it is necessary to transform national health policy, which traditionally has been grounded in a concern for personal health services and biomedical research that benefits the individual. Such repositioning will affirm and expand existing commitments to reflect a broader perspective. Approaching health from a population perspective commits the nation to understanding and acting on the full array of factors that affect health.

To best address the social, economic, and cultural environments at national, state, and local levels, the nation’s efforts must involve more than just the traditional sectors—the governmental public health agencies and the health care delivery system. As has been outlined in the preceding pages, what is needed is the creation of an effective intersectoral public health system. Furthermore, the efforts of the public health system must be supported by political will—which comes from elected officials who commit resources and influence based on evidence—and by “healthy” public policy—which comes from governmental agencies that consider health effects in developing agriculture, education, commerce, labor, transportation, and foreign policy.

This chapter describes the rationale behind a transformed approach to



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The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century 2 Understanding Population Health and Its Determinants For most people, thinking about health and health care is a very personal issue. Assuring the health of the public, however, goes beyond focusing on the health status of individuals; it requires a population health approach. As noted in Chapter 1, America’s health status does not match the nation’s substantial health investments. The work of assuring the nation’s health also faces dramatic change, systemic problems, and challenging societal norms and influences. Given these issues, the committee believes that it is necessary to transform national health policy, which traditionally has been grounded in a concern for personal health services and biomedical research that benefits the individual. Such repositioning will affirm and expand existing commitments to reflect a broader perspective. Approaching health from a population perspective commits the nation to understanding and acting on the full array of factors that affect health. To best address the social, economic, and cultural environments at national, state, and local levels, the nation’s efforts must involve more than just the traditional sectors—the governmental public health agencies and the health care delivery system. As has been outlined in the preceding pages, what is needed is the creation of an effective intersectoral public health system. Furthermore, the efforts of the public health system must be supported by political will—which comes from elected officials who commit resources and influence based on evidence—and by “healthy” public policy—which comes from governmental agencies that consider health effects in developing agriculture, education, commerce, labor, transportation, and foreign policy. This chapter describes the rationale behind a transformed approach to

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The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century addressing population health problems. This approach identifies key determinants of the nation’s health and presents evidence for their consideration in developing effective national strategies to assure population health and support the development of a public health system that blends the strengths and resources of diverse sectors and partners (IOM, 1997). A POPULATION PERSPECTIVE For nations to improve the health of their populations, some have cogently argued, they need to move beyond clinical interventions with high-risk groups. This concept was best articulated by Rose (1992), who noted that “medical thinking has been largely concerned with the needs of sick individuals.” Although this reflects an important mission for medicine and health care, it is a limited one that does little to prevent people from becoming sick in the first place, and it typically has disregarded issues related to disparities in access to and quality of preventive and treatment services. Personal health care is only one, and perhaps the least powerful, of several types of determinants of health, among which are also included genetic, behavioral, social, and environmental factors (IOM, 2000; McGinnis et al., 2002). To modify these, the nation and the intersectoral public health system must identify and exploit the full potential of new options and strategies for health policy and action. Three realities are central to the development of effective population-based prevention strategies. First, disease risk is currently conceived of as a continuum rather than a dichotomy. There is no clear division between risk for disease and no risk for disease with regard to levels of blood pressure, cholesterol, alcohol consumption, tobacco consumption, physical activity, diet and weight, lead exposure, and other risk factors. In fact, recommended cutoff points for management or treatment of many of these risk factors have changed dramatically and in a downward direction over time (e.g., guidelines for control of “hypertension” and cholesterol), in acknowledgment of the increased risk associated with common moderately elevated levels of a given risk factor. This continuum of risk is also apparent for many social and environmental conditions as well (e.g., socioeconomic status, social isolation, work stress, and environmental exposures). Any population model of prevention should be built on the recognition that there are degrees of risk rather than just two extremes of exposure (i.e., risk and no risk). The second reality is that most often only a small percentage of any population is at the extremes of high or low risk. The majority of people fall in the middle of the distribution of risk. Rose (1981, 1992) observed that exposure of a large number of people to a small risk can yield a more absolute number of cases of a condition than exposure of a small number of people to a high risk. This relationship argues for the development of

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The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century strategies that focus on the modification of risk for the entire population rather than for specific high-risk individuals. Rose (1981) termed the preventive approach the “prevention paradox” because it brings large benefits to the community but offers little to each participating individual. In other words, such strategies would move the entire distribution of risk to lower levels to achieve maximal population gains. The third reality, provided by Rose’s (1992) population perspective, is that an individual’s risk of illness cannot be considered in isolation from the disease risk for the population to which he or she belongs. Thus, someone in the United States is more likely to die prematurely from a heart attack than someone living in Japan, because the population distribution of high cholesterol in the United States as a whole is higher than the distribution in Japan (i.e., on a graph of the distribution of cholesterol levels in a population, the U.S. mean is shifted to the right of the Japanese mean). Applying the population perspective to a health measure means asking why a population has the existing distribution of a particular risk, in addition to asking why a particular individual got sick (Rose, 1992). This is critical, because the greatest improvements in a population’s health are likely to derive from interventions based on the first question. Because the majority of cases of illness arise within the bulk of the population outside the extremes of risk, prevention strategies must be applicable to a broad base of the population. American society experienced this approach to disease prevention and health promotion in the early twentieth century, when measures were taken to promote sanitation and food and water safety (CDC, 1999b), and in more recent policies on seat belt use, unleaded gasoline, vaccination, and water fluoridation, some of which are discussed later in this chapter. The committee recognizes that achieving the goal of improving population health requires balancing of the strategies aimed at shifting the distribution of risk with other approaches. The committee does, however, endorse a much wider examination, and ultimately the development, of new population-based strategies. Three graphs illustrate different models for risk reduction (see Figure 2–1). These hypothetical models assume etiological links exist among all exposures and disease outcomes. Figure 2–1a shows the effects of an intervention aimed at reducing the risk of those in the highest-risk category. In this example, people with the highest body mass index (BMI)1 are at in 1   Body mass index is a measure of body fat based on height and weight (kilograms divided by meters squared, kg/m2). A person with a BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9 would be considered of normal weight, whereas a person with a BMI of between 25 and 29.9 would be considered overweight, and someone with a BMI of 30 or greater would be classified as obese. BMIs above normal are associated with an increased risk of morbidity and mortality. A person’s BMI is influenced by genes, behavior, the environment, and interactions among these factors.

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The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century FIGURE 2–1 Models for risk reduction. SOURCE: Data for current distribution from Schwartz and Woloshin, 1999.

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The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century creased risk for cardiovascular heart disease and a plethora of chronic illnesses. Intervening medically, for example, to decrease risk (by lowering levels of obesity, as measured by BMI) ultimately decreases the proportion of the population with the highest BMIs. Such measures among very high-risk individuals may even be endorsed in cases where the “intervention” itself carries a substantial risk of poor outcome or side effects. However, use of such an intervention would be acceptable only in those whose medical risk was very high. Moreover, interventions in high-risk groups may have a limited effect on population outcomes because the greater proportion of those with moderate risk levels may ultimately translate into more chronic disease or other poor health outcomes. Figure 2–1b illustrates Rose’s classic model whereby the greatest benefit is achieved by shifting the entire distribution of risk to a lower level of risk. Because most people are in categories of moderately elevated risk as opposed to very high risk, this strategy offers the greatest benefit in terms of population-attributable risk, assuming that the intervention itself carries little or no risk. The hypothetical example shows what might occur if social policies or other population-wide measures were adopted to promote small decreases in weight in the general population. The committee embraces this kind of model of disease prevention in the case of policies such as seat belt regulation and the reduction of lead levels in gasoline. The final hypothetical model (Figure 2–1c), although not discussed by Rose explicitly, illustrates a reduction in the distributions of those at highest and lowest risk with no change in the distribution of those with a mean level of risk. This model is appropriate for illustrating phenomena relating to inequality, where redistribution of some good (e.g., income, education, housing, or health care) reduces inequality without necessarily changing the mean of the distribution of that good. One hypothetical example is the association between low income and poor health. In many cases, there is a curvilinear association between these goods and health outcomes, with decreased health gains experienced by those at the upper bounds of the distribution. For example, data on income suggest that there are large differences in the health gains achieved per dollar earned for those at the lower end of the income distribution and fewer differences in the health gains achieved per dollar earned for those at the upper end. Thus, the curvilinear association, if it were a causal one, would suggest that substantial gains in population-level health outcomes may be achieved by a redistribution of some resources without actual changes in the means. These graphs help to illustrate three different strategies for improving the health of the population. The nation has often endorsed the first strategy without a critical examination of the other two, especially the second one. The American public has grown accustomed to seeing differences in exposures to risk, both environmental and behavioral, and disparities in

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The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century health outcomes. Acknowledging these gradients fully will help develop true population-based intervention strategies and help the partners who collaborate to assure the public’s health move to take effective actions and make effective policies. Understanding and ultimately improving a population’s health rest not only on understanding this population perspective but also on understanding the ecology of health and the interconnectedness of the biological, behavioral, physical, and socioenvironmental domains. In some ways, conventional public health models (e.g., the agent–host–environment triad) have long emphasized an ecological understanding of disease prevention. Enormous gains in the control and eradication of infectious diseases rested upon a deep understanding of the ecology of specific agents and the power of environmental interventions rather than individual or behavioral interventions to control disease. For example, in areas where sanitation and water purification are poor, individual behaviors, such as hand washing and boiling of water, are emphasized to reduce the spread of disease. However, when environmental controls become feasible, it is easy to move to a more “upstream”2 intervention (like municipal water purification) to improve health. The last several decades of research have resulted in a deeper understanding not only of the physical dimensions of the environment that are toxic but also of a broad range of related conditions in the social environment that are factors in creating poor health. These social determinants challenge the discipline of public health to more fully incorporate them. Over the past decade, several models have been developed to illustrate the determinants of health and the ecological nature of health (e.g., see Dahlgren and Whitehead [1991], Evans and Stoddart [1990], and Appendix A). Many of these models have been developed in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Scandinavia, where population approaches have started to shape governmental and public health policies. The committee has built on the Dahlgren-Whitehead model—which also guided the Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health in the United Kingdom—modifying it to reflect special issues of relevance in the United States (see Figure 2–2). This figure serves as a useful heuristic to help us think about the multiple determinants of population health. It may, for instance, help to illustrate how the health sector, which includes governmental public health agencies and the health care delivery system, must work with other sectors of government such as education, labor, economic development, and agriculture to 2   Upstream refers to determinants of health that are somewhat removed from the more “downstream” biological and behavioral bases for disease. Such upstream determinants include “social relations, neighborhoods and communities, institutions, and social and economic policies” (IOM, 2000).

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The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century FIGURE 2–2 A guide to thinking about the determinants of population health. NOTES: Adapted from Dahlgren and Whitehead, 1991. The dotted lines between levels of the model denote interaction effects between and among the various levels of health determinants (Worthman, 1999). aSocial conditions include, but are not limited to: economic inequality, urbanization, mobility, cultural values, attitudes and policies related to discrimination and intolerance on the basis of race, gender, and other differences. bOther conditions at the national level might include major sociopolitical shifts, such as recession, war, and governmental collapse. cThe built environment includes transportation, water and sanitation, housing, and other dimensions of urban planning. create “healthy” public policy. Furthermore, the governmental sector needs to work in partnership with nongovernmental sectors such as academia, the media, business, community-based organizations and communities themselves to create the intersectoral model of the public health system first alluded to in the 1988 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report and established in this report as critical to effective health action. Most models of health determinants identify macro-level conditions

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The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century and policies (social, economic, cultural, and environmental) as potent forces in shaping midlevel (working conditions, housing) and proximate (behavioral, biological) determinants of health. Macro-level or upstream determinants (such as policies and societal norms) and micro-level determinants (such as sex or the virulence of a disease agent) interact along complex and dynamic pathways to produce health at a population level. As mentioned above, exposures at the environmental level may have a greater influence on population health than individual vulnerabilities, although at an individual level, personal characteristics including genetic predispositions interact with the environment to produce disease. For instance, smoking is a complex biobehavioral activity with both significant genetic heritability and nongenetic, environmental influences, and many studies have shown an interaction between smoking and specific genes in determining the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and cancers. It is also important to note that developmental and historical conditions change over time at both a societal level (e.g., demographic changes) and an individual level (e.g., life course issues) and that disease itself evolves as agents change in virulence. In the pages that follow, the committee provides a concise discussion of the key determinants that constitute the ecology of health, including environmental and social determinants, and elaborates in more detail on the social influences on health. This decision was made in recognition of a longer history in studying the ways in which environment shapes population health. THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT AS A DETERMINANT OF HEALTH At least since the time of Hippocrates’ essay “Air, Water and Places,” written in 400 B.C.E., humans have been aware of the many connections between health and the environment. Improved water, food, and milk sanitation, reduced physical crowding, improved nutrition, and central heating with cleaner fuels were the developments most responsible for the great advances in public health achieved during the twentieth century. These advantages of a developed nation are taken for granted, but in fact, they could deteriorate without adequate support of the governmental public health infrastructure. Environmental health problems, historically local in their effects and short in duration, have changed dramatically within the last 25 years. Today’s problems are also persistent and global. Together, global warming, population growth, habitat destruction, loss of green space, and resource depletion have produced a widely acknowledged environmental crisis (NRC, 1999). These long-term environmental problems are not amenable to quick technical fixes, and their resolution will require community and

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The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century societal engagement. At the local and community levels, environmental issues are equally complex and are also related to a range of socioeconomic factors. A brief look at some of the evidence on environmental determinants of health may help shed some light on why health is not equally shared. The importance of “place” to health status became increasingly clear in the last decades of the twentieth century. The places in which people work and live have an enormous impact on their health. The characteristics of place include the social and economic environments, as well as the natural environment (e.g., air, water) and the built environment, which may include transportation, buildings, green spaces, roads, and other infrastructure (IOM, 2001b). Environmental hazards in workplaces and communities may range from tobacco smoke to pesticides to toxic housing. Rural areas may present increased health risks from pesticides and other environmental exposures, whereas some environmental threats to health can occur because of urban living conditions. More than three-quarters of Americans live in urban areas (Bureau of the Census, 1993). Although rural Americans experience certain health-related disadvantages (e.g., health care access issues due to transportation and availability) (Slifkin et al., 2000; NCHS, 2001), some of the health effects of the inner city (i.e., decay and crime) are often dramatic and may be related to broader social issues. The “urban health penalty”—the “greater prevalence of a large number of health problems and risk factors in cities than in suburbs and rural areas” (Leviton et al., 2000:863)—has been frequently discussed and studied (Lawrence, 1999; Freudenberg, 2000; Geronimus, 2000). A variety of political, socioeconomic, and environmental factors shape the health status of cities and their residents by influencing “health behaviors such as exercise, diet, sexual behavior, alcohol and substance use” (Freudenberg, 2000:837). The negative environmental aspects of urban living—toxic buildings, proximity to industrial parks, and a lack of parks or green spaces, among others—likely affect those who are already at an economic and social disadvantage because of the concentration of such negative aspects in specific pockets of poverty and deprivation (Lawrence, 1999; Maantay, 2001; Williams and Collins, 2001). Urban dwellers may experience higher levels of air pollution, which is associated with higher levels of cardiovascular and respiratory disease (Hoek et al., 2001; Ibald-Mulli et al., 2001; Peters et al., 2001). People who live in aging buildings and in crowded and unsanitary conditions may also experience increased levels of lead in their blood, as well as asthma and allergies (Pertowski, 1994; Pew Environmental Health Commission, 2000; CDC, 2001a). These examples illustrate some of the profound effects of the physical environment on health. The places where people live may expose them to harmful factors.

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The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century Methylmercury: A Case Study The case of methylmercury as an environmental pollutant illustrates the potentially dramatic effects of the physical environment on health. Environmental toxins are a specific form of environmental hazard, caused in most cases by industrial enterprises, and the adverse effects of such toxins on the nervous system have been well documented. High levels of exposure to certain environmental pollutants are known to cause acute effects including convulsions, paralysis, coma, and death. The effects of lead on health and development have been documented for decades, and policy action regarding leaded gasoline and lead-based paints has been taken, with positive effects on child health. However, there is growing concern about emerging evidence that other ubiquitous pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury may cause behavioral problems and affect mood and social adjustment. The adverse impacts of exposure to these pollutants may be most profound during fetal development and early childhood. Amidst growing national concern about developmental disabilities, exposure to mercury in the environment represents an emerging and preventable environmental health threat. The National Research Council (NRC) report Toxicological Effects of Methylmercury (NRC, 2000) examined the evidence of adverse health impacts resulting from exposure to mercury, focusing on consumption of seafood contaminated by releases to the environment. Fossil fuel combustion represents the major source of mercury released to the environment. The deposition of mercury on the land and in surface waters results in conversion to forms that accumulate in the food chain. This bioaccumulation can result in very high concentrations of mercury in some fish, which are the main source of exposure for the population. The developing brain is particularly sensitive to the adverse effects of mercury exposure. Prenatal exposures may interfere with the growth and development of neurons and cause irreversible damage to the nervous system. Infants whose mothers were exposed to high levels in poisoning episodes in Minamata, Japan, and in Iraq were born with severe disabilities, including mental retardation, cerebral palsy, blindness, and deafness (EPA, 1997; NRC, 2000). More recently, epidemiological studies of lower-level exposure from maternal fish consumption have raised concerns about subtle neurodevelopmental deficits. The NRC report concluded that the evidence of developmental neurotoxic effects from mercury exposure is strong and called for revision of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reference dose that provides public health guidance on acceptable population exposure levels. This conclusion was based on epidemiological studies of low-level chronic exposure from seafood consumption. The population at risk consists of women of childbearing age and their children. Frequent consumers, par-

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The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century ticularly of fish that tend to accumulate high levels of mercury, may be exposing their unborn children to levels of mercury in the range that has been shown to be associated with developmental deficits. Based upon the available data on fish consumption, the NRC committee estimated that as many as 60,000 newborns may be at risk for adverse neurodevelopmental effects from in utero exposure to mercury. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the first National Exposure Report, which provided dramatic confirmation of the emerging threat of mercury. Ten percent of a national sample of women of childbearing age had mercury levels in their blood within 1/10 of potentially hazardous levels, indicating a narrow margin of safety for many women (CDC, 2001c). Currently, 40 states have issued fish consumption advisories to reduce exposure to mercury. EPA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have also recently revised their guidance concerning consumption of fish species that have been shown to have high levels of mercury. Ultimately, the threat of mercury can be most effectively reduced through control of the sources of pollution. However, control of sources from the burning of fossil fuels may be decades away. In the meantime, prevention of adverse public health impacts from mercury will require a partnership among health care providers, public health agencies, and others. The example of methylmercury clearly illustrates the serious impact of just one environmental risk factor. The influences of many other environmental risk factors on health have not been fully documented, and evidence of the influence of environmental factors for some health conditions like asthma is rapidly accumulating (Trust for America’s Health, 2001). The association between certain chronic diseases and environmental causes is devastatingly clear, yet knowledge about the scope of environmental health risks and their impact on the public’s health is limited. Most states do not track environmental risk factors like pesticides and other hazards or most chronic diseases (such as asthma) and birth defects (Pew Environmental Health Commission, 2001). Certainly, a significant amount of work remains to be done to address the physical environment’s powerful influence on health status. A great deal about health determinants in the built and natural environments has been learned in recent decades, but much more is yet to be examined. THE SOCIAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH Most recently, social epidemiologists and other researchers have focused on identifying the social equivalents of leaded gasoline and environmental tobacco smoke. Among the greatest advances in understanding the factors that shape population health over the last two decades, and clearly

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