Social conditions as fundamental causes of disease

J Health Soc Behav. 1995:Spec No:80-94.


Over the last several decades, epidemiological studies have been enormously successful in identifying risk factors for major diseases. However, most of this research has focused attention on risk factors that are relatively proximal causes of disease such as diet, cholesterol level, exercise and the like. We question the emphasis on such individually-based risk factors and argue that greater attention must be paid to basic social conditions if health reform is to have its maximum effect in the time ahead. There are two reasons for this claim. First we argue that individually-based risk factors must be contextualized, by examining what puts people at risk of risks, if we are to craft effective interventions and improve the nation's health. Second, we argue that social factors such as socioeconomic status and social support are likely "fundamental causes" of disease that, because they embody access to important resources, affect multiple disease outcomes through multiple mechanisms, and consequently maintain an association with disease even when intervening mechanisms change. Without careful attention to these possibilities, we run the risk of imposing individually-based intervention strategies that are ineffective and of missing opportunities to adopt broad-based societal interventions that could produce substantial health benefits for our citizens.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Disease / etiology*
  • Epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Public Policy
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Environment*
  • Sociology, Medical*