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The Causes of Shorter Life Expectancies in America

Lori Dorfman, director of PHI's Berkeley Media Studies Group, wrote this letter to the editor in response to a New York Times article on new research about shortened life expectancies for low-income Americans, particularly in some parts of the country. Dorfman points out that while it is useful for researchers to focus on a single factor among the various social determinants of health to better understand it, there is a danger in fixating on just one when developing policies to improve the health of low-income populations.

To the Editor:

Re “Where the Poor Live in America May Help Determine Life Span”: Ya think?

Public health researchers have known for decades that place — and the inequities in those places — determine the health status of whole populations. This new research is important because it helps us get a closer look at why. But there is also a danger that policy makers may get distracted by a single factor among the intertwined social determinants of health.

Researchers try to untangle these factors so they can get a better look at the problem, but solutions have to consider the whole picture. Controlling for race, for example, is useful for epidemiology but dangerous for public policy. For that we need a wide-angle lens that takes in the entire landscape, so all the social determinants of health can be factored in to the public policies that shape people’s neighborhoods, and, ultimately, their lives.


Berkeley, Calif.

The writer is director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, a project of the Public Health Institute.

Read the letter in the New York Times.

Originally published by New York Times

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