Chapter 4: The Chief Public Health Officer's report on the state of public health in Canada 2008 – What makes and keeps us healthy

Social and Economic Factors that Influence Our Health and Contribute to Health Inequalities

What makes – and keeps – us healthy

If good health is not shared equally by Canadians, then understanding the many factors – or determinants – that contribute to health and differences in health status is essential to identifying and implementing solutions to this challenge.

Health inequalities are differences in health status experienced by various individuals or groups in society. These can be the result of genetic and biological factors, choices made or by chance, but often they are because of unequal access to key factors that influence health like income, education, employment and social supports.2

Age, sex and heredity are key factors that determine health. The choices we make also matter, but these choices are influenced by environments, experiences, cultures and other factors (the determinants of health). And for some, even when the best choices known are made, their health outcomes are limited by these other factors.

Economic and social drivers such as income, education and social connectedness have a direct bearing on health.145, 167 These socio-economic determinants strongly interact to influence health and, in general, an improvement in any of these can produce an improvement in both health behaviours and outcomes among individuals and/or groups.

Those with very low incomes, for example, often lack resources and access to nutritious food, adequate housing, safe walking paths and working conditions, which can impact negatively on their health.7 As well, they may face financial and life stress, which – over time – can have health consequences such as high blood pressure, or immune and circulatory complications.145 On the other hand, those who have adequate income and employment are likely to experience health outcomes that are less dependent on material needs but are nonetheless affected by the demands they face at home and at work and the degree to which they have control and decision-making influence in those settings. Generally, the degree to which people feel they have control over their circumstances is related to how healthy they are. Increased exposure to stress, as well as a lack of resources, skills, social support and connection to the community can contribute to less healthy coping skills and poorer health behaviours such as smoking, over-consumption of alcohol and less healthy eating habits.7, 122

The structure of society also influences health through the distribution of public goods and resources. In fact, the extent to which these are equally shared across the population has been shown to influence the health of the population.2 Social support, social networking and connection to culture can protect against the health affects of living in disadvantaged circumstances. As well, having a good start in life can help set the trajectory for a healthier life. Research now shows that many challenges for adults (e.g. mental health issues, obesity, heart disease, criminality, low literacy) have roots in early childhood. Providing children with environments that are stimulating, supportive and include positive parental involvement – particularly during the first six years of life – can influence health (e.g. by mitigating poor health outcomes in later life).212

The following socio-economic determinants of health will be discussed in further detail in this chapter. The order of this discussion reflects the importance of the broader economic and social context for health behaviours, access to health care and ultimately the health of the population.

The determinants include:

  • income;
  • employment and working conditions;
  • food security;
  • environment and housing;
  • early childhood development;
  • education and literacy;
  • social support and connectedness;
  • health behaviours; and
  • access to health care.

Table 4.1 shows both measured statistics and self-reported indicators of key socio-economic factors that influence the health of the overall population. These statistics are collected from sources such as the census, filed income and tax records, scientific monitors (e.g. air quality instruments), and police/enforcement records for criminal and/or violent offences. The self-reported indicators in this table rely on information provided by individuals on health behaviours (e.g. daily smoking, sexual practices), access to health care (e.g. visiting a physician), food security and having a sense of community. What follows is a description of these key factors, how they affect different groups of Canadians and how they vary across the population.

Also included in this chapter are interventions that show how these factors can be impacted through specific policies and programs. They have been developed and delivered by different sectors of Canadian society − including the public health sector − that have been working together, as well as independently, applying growing knowledge and experience of what affects health and quality of life to reduce inequalities. For some interventions, evidence exists regarding their demonstrated value. Others have been identified as ‘promising’ but have not been fully studied or evaluated to prove their effectiveness. An effort has been made to highlight activities across a range of age groups, populations and environments across Canada.

Table 4.1 Factors influencing our health
Value Description Year
Persons living in low income (after-tax) 10.8 percent of the population based on 1992 low-income cut-off levels 2005
Employment and working conditions
Unemployment rate 6.3 percent of the population aged 15+ years 2006
Food security
People reporting food insecurity * 9.2 percent of the population aged 12+ years 2004
Environment and housing
Ground-level ozone exposure 38.1 parts per billion (population weighted) 2005
Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exposure 9.5 micrograms per cubic metre (population weighted) 2005
Unable to access acceptable housing 13.7 percent of the population 2001
Education and literacy
High school graduates 79.7 percent of the population aged 25+ years 2006
Some postsecondary education 60.1 percent of the population aged 25+ years 2006
Postsecondary education 54.2 percent of the population aged 25+ years 2006
Social support and connectedness
Very or somewhat strong sense of 62.3 percent of the population aged 12+ years 2005
community belonging *  
Violent crimes committed 951 per 100,000 population 2006
Health behaviours
Daily smoking * 18.6 percent of the population aged 15+ years 2006
Engaged in leisure time physical activity * 52.2 percent of the population aged 12+ years 2005
Fruit and vegetable consumption
5+ times a day *
41.2 percent of the population aged 12+ years 2005
Heavy drinking (5+ drinks on one occasion 21.8 percent of the population aged 12+ years 2005
12+ times in a year) *  
Any illicit drug use * 12.6 percent of the population aged 12+ years 2002
Teen pregnancy 30.5 pregnancies per 1,000 female population aged 15 to 19 years 2004
Access to health care
Regular family physician * 86.4 percent of the population aged 12+ years 2005
Contact with dental professional * 63.7 percent of the population aged 12+ years 2005

* Denotes self-reported data
Note: Some data may not be comparable. More detailed information can be found in
Appendix D: Definitions and Data Sources for Indicators.
Sources: Public Health Agency of Canada using data from Health Canada, Statistics Canada, Canada Mortgage and Housing Canada and Environment Canada.

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