Key points

  • This guide explores how a person’s opportunity for health is influenced by factors outside the health and social care system.
  • It also shows that many people don’t have the same opportunities to be as healthy as others.
  • It contains suggestions for further reading and, with the help of short case studies, highlights how action can create improvements in the health of the whole population, for the lasting benefit of individuals, society and the economy.
  • The guide has been written for anyone with an interest in people’s health and wellbeing, and will be especially useful to those new to the social determinants of health.

What causes heart disease? To some, the clear answer would be ‘blocked arteries’. So, what, in turn, causes those arteries to become blocked? Perhaps it’s the unhealthy food and drink people consume, their lack of exercise or their stress levels. And what, in turn makes them feel stressed, shapes their opportunities to be active and determines their choices about what they eat and drink?

The answers lie in the circumstances in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age: the social determinants of health. These can enable individuals and societies to flourish, or not. These are the causes of the causes.

The Health Foundation has written this guide as a brief introduction to the social determinants of health. 

Further reading

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Thinking differently about health

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Creating healthy lives

September 2019
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This publication makes the case for an ambitious, whole-government approach to long-term investment...

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Unequal pandemic, fairer recovery

July 2021
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A comprehensive review of the factors that affected the UK’s devastating COVID-19 death toll.

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