Poverty Can Make You Sick: From Social Determinants to Biological Markers seminar

By Clare Sawyer, MSc Demography & Health

Held in the Manson lecture theatre at the School, speakers from a range of institutions came to discuss the widely acknowledged fact that structural and social determinants shape an individuals health. The focus of the discussion was not, in this case, the pathways through which this occurs, but the final step – how social determinants influence the biological processes which make people sick at the physiological, genetic, immune system level and lead to pathological conditions.

Beginning the talks from a more biological and statistical background was Dr. Marc Chadeau-Hyam, who started off the symposium by introducing the H2020 project [1] and in particular, the LIFEPATH project [2]. This project emphasises the role of combining the social sciences with biology in order to study the effects of socio-economic status on health ageing. Dr Chadeau-Hyam also highlighted the importance of ‘harmonised data’ where social measures are taken alongside biological markers in order to allow any potential relationships to be explored with a reliable set of data. Following on from this Professor Bianca De Stavola from the School discussed the importance of understanding the causal pathway when examining social determinants with biological markers, as well as noting that natural direct and indirect effects can begin to address “what proportion of the effect of early life SEP (socio-economic position) on the biomarkers can be mediated by adult SEP”.


Professor Bianca De Stavola


Continuing from this biological perspectives, Professor David Blane moved the discussions in a more sociological direction, posing the question; how does a social and cultural phenomenon, such as class, enter the molecules and genetic make up of a person in a manner which can make them sick? The Boyd Orr Cohort Study [3] is one study aiming to measure the total number of health hazards an individual could expect to be exposed to in their lifetime using a ‘life grid’ to create ‘hazard scores’. Dr Mauricio Avendano from Kings College London and LSE closed the speeches by discussing the effect of social policies on health and biology. Dr Avendano discussed the need to move from observational evidence to causal evidence and the need to ‘close the gap’ between the richest and poorest, noting that a sufficient income is needed for a healthy lifestyle. Many interesting examples were drawn on that were pertinent in a period of social cuts by governments – for example, the increase in suicide rates in the US has been linked to high unemployment with evidence the effect was mediated through unemployment benefits – with suicides reducing as unemployment benefits rise and vice versa [4].


Professor David Blane


Finally, the speeches concluded and the panel discussions began. There were many fruitful comments and questions made from the floor; including comments about funding, about collaboration and contributions possible from social scientists such as geographers and anthropologists as well as those with medical and scientific backgrounds and about the messiness of definitions such as ‘socio-economic status’.

It was a fantastic event, and many thanks to all the speakers and contributing members of the audience for a lively discussion and interesting notions for future research.

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[1] http://horizon2020projects.com

[2] http://www.lifepathproject.eu

[3] http://www.bris.ac.uk/social-community-medicine/projects/boyd-orr/

[4] Cylus, Jonathan and Glymour, M. Maria and Avendano, Mauricio (2015) Health effects of unemployment benefit program generosity The American Journal of Public Health, 105 (2). 317-323. ISSN 1541-0048

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