Social determinants and the classification of disease: descriptive epidemiology of selected socially mediated disease constellations

PLoS One. 2014 Nov 5;9(11):e110271. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0110271. eCollection 2014.


Background: Most major diseases have important social determinants. In this context, classification of disease based on etiologic or anatomic criteria may be neither mutually exclusive nor optimal.

Methods and findings: Units of analysis comprised large metropolitan central and fringe metropolitan counties with reliable mortality rates--(n = 416). Participants included infants and adults ages 25 to 64 years with selected causes of death (1999 to 2006). Exposures included that residential segregation and race-specific social deprivation variables. Main outcome measures were obtained via principal components analyses with an orthogonal rotation to identify a common factor. To discern whether the common factor was socially mediated, negative binomial multiple regression models were developed for which the dependent variable was the common factor. Results showed that infant deaths, mortality from assault, and malignant neoplasm of the trachea, bronchus and lung formed a common factor for race-gender groups (black/white and men/women). Regression analyses showed statistically significant, positive associations between low socio-economic status for all race-gender groups and this common factor.

Conclusions: Between 1999 and 2006, deaths classified as "assault" and "lung cancer", as well as "infant mortality" formed a socially mediated factor detectable in population but not individual data. Despite limitations related to death certificate data, the results contribute important information to the formulation of several hypotheses: (a) disease classifications based on anatomic or etiologic criteria fail to account for social determinants; (b) social forces produce demographically and possibly geographically distinct population-based disease constellations; and (c) the individual components of population-based disease constellations (e.g., lung cancer) are phenotypically comparable from one population to another but genotypically different, in part, because of socially mediated epigenetic variations. Additional research may produce new taxonomies that unify social determinants with anatomic and/or etiologic determinants. This may lead to improved medical management of individuals and populations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Disease / classification*
  • Disease / etiology
  • Epidemiologic Methods
  • Epidemiology / standards
  • Epidemiology / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Mortality
  • Middle Aged
  • Social Determinants of Health*
  • United States