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Key factors in determining people’s health

Five key factors play an important role in helping determine whether people are healthy or not2. Many are linked to literacy in some way.

    Five key factors in determining health

  1. Living and working conditions

  2. Personal health practices and coping skills

  3. Physical environment

  4. Health services

  5. Biology and genetics

1. Living and working conditions

Income and social status are the most important factors in determining good health. People with higher income are likely to be healthier than those with low income. Literacy levels may affect both income and social status.

Employment can affect health in several different ways:

  • work itself may be stressful
  • accidents and injuries at work may cause health problems
  • unemployment may lead to low income, as well as stress

Literacy levels may affect a person’s ability to find and keep employment. Or, people may be unable to read safety notices.

Education affects health. People with higher education are likely to be healthier. They have better job opportunities and higher income. The security that comes from these makes them feel they have more control over their lives.

2. Personal health practices and coping skills

Stress, vulnerability and control affect health in a number of ways. Low literacy skills or unemployment are both stressful. People in these situations may feel they have no control over their lives and may have limited coping skills. These may lead to stress, which is a key factor in depression and other mental health problems, and may lead eventually to other illnesses.

Lifestyle choices affect people’s health. People who make choices that lead to a healthy lifestyle are at less risk of health problems than those who choose high-risk behaviours. For example, choosing to smoke puts people at higher risk of a number of different health problems, like heart or lung disease. Lifestyle choices may be linked to access to health information.

Social support networks are linked to better health. People need families and friends for support, especially when things are difficult for them. Those with a strong network of support are likely to be healthier.

Pre-natal and early childhood development are important stages of development. A child’s experiences during the first few years of life may have a long-lasting effect on his health. For example, if a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, it may put her baby at risk of serious health problems. Or, if parents help their children develop early literacy skills, this supports literacy development throughout their lives, a more indirect effect on health.

3. Physical environment

Physical environment affects health. The quality of people’s housing, the water they drink and the air around them are all factors in their environment. Housing quality may be related to income, which may relate back to literacy skills.

4. Health services

Health information is important in helping people make healthy choices. People who have difficulty reading will have difficulty accessing and understanding most health information. Health services contribute to good health. People need to have access to good health services, especially preventative health services. However, they also have to feel comfortable accessing them, and they have to know how to use them appropriately.

5. Biology and genetics

Genetics may affect people’s health. Some diseases that pass from a parent to a child may not be connected to literacy. Others, however, may interfere with literacy development.

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2 This information is adapted from Health Canada, How Does Literacy affect the Health of Canadians? and Health Canada, Strategies for Population Health— Investing in the Health of Canadians.

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