Unnatural Causes: Effects of Socioeconomics and Racism on Health


What are the causes of ill-health and our country’s health inequalities? A group of advocates for social justice and health equality point out that while medical insurance is important, lack of health care is not the cause of disease. Our American diet and personal health behaviors affect our health but growing research shows that our eating and lifestyle habits depend on and are largely shaped by our access to education; good, quality food; a safe, clean and friendly living environment; job opportunities; and experiences of equality, or lack there of, in our daily life — basically the social determinants of health.

The Unnatural Causes website debuts several powerful documentary films and transcripts (also available in Spanish) on various facets of this issue. The documentaries, first broadcast on PBS and now by thousands of organizations nationwide, are used as tools to tackle the root causes of our socio-economic and racial inequalities in health. The films document and demonstrate that the social conditions within which we are “born, live and work can actually get under our skin and disrupt our physiology as much as germs and viruses.”

Some of the documentaries include:

  • In Sickness and In Wealth (56 min.) Explores how the distribution of power, wealth and resources shape opportunities for health.
  • Place Matters (29 min.) Demonstrates why your street address can be such a strong predictor of your health.
  • When the Bough Breaks (29 min.) Shows how racism can become embedded in the body and affect both health and birth outcomes.
  • Becoming American (29 min.) Examines how and why the many Latino immigrants that arrive to the U.S. are healthy, yet the longer they stay, the worse their health becomes.

Being one of the world’s most powerful industrialized countries, many would think living in America would be a “ticket” to good health. Yet exactly the opposite seems to be true. Americans often live sicker and shorter lives than people in all other industrialized countries. This is true despite the fact that we have the highest gross national product in the world, and we spend $2 trillion per year on medical care, nearly half of all the money spent on health care in the world. America ranks 30th in life expectancy compared to all other economically developed countries. This trend is also true for the subgroup of America’s older adults as shown in the National Institute on Aging’s 2008 report on older Americans’ health. Americans aged 65 and older have a shorter life expectancy than older adults in most other industrialized nations and these disparities vary even more depending on one’s class and ethnicity.

Advocates with Unnatural Causes strongly advocate for health care reform and policies that address the social determinants of health. They state that: “As a society, we have a choice: invest in the conditions for health now, or pay to repair our bodies later.”

For more information, visit the Unnatural Causes website: www.unnaturalcauses.org.

Karen Joy Fletcher

Our blogger Karen Joy Fletcher is CHA’s Communications Director. With a Masters in Public Health from UC Berkeley, she is the online “public face” of the organization, provides technical expertise, writing and research on Medicare and other health care issues. She is responsible for digital content creation, management of CHA’s editorial calendar, and managing all aspects of CHA’s social media presence. She loves being a “communicator” and enjoys networking and collaborating with the passionate people and agencies in the health advocacy field. See her current articles.