US Health Disparities: Definition, Causes, & Examples

Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson examines health disparities in the United States. Health disparities are differences in overall health due to factors such as socioeconomic status and environment. We'll discuss some of the major causes of health disparities and also look at a few specific examples.

U.S. Health Disparities

Is health created equally? Are some people more likely to get sick than others? Do some people have less access to heath care professionals when they do get sick? Health disparities include differences in access to quality care, susceptibility to disease, and access to healthy foods. These disparities are common in the U.S.

Health is shaped by a number of factors and varies from person to person. Health disparities can refer to a several things, including differences in socioeconomic status, differences in prevalence of certain diseases by race and ethnicity, or different likelihoods of being exposed to an environmental toxin. These factors are called 'health determinants'. Many illnesses and conditions are not distributed equally across social classes (which broadly refers to your position in society based on income, occupation, and education).

Let's talk about some of the reasons why health disparities exist in the United States and then look at a few examples of health disparities.

Examples of Health Disparities

Poverty is a major cause of health disparities in the United States. Officially, poverty in the U.S. is defined by income. For a family of four, for example, the U.S. government defines poverty as earning less than $24,250 per year (2015, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

Poverty often leads to an inability to afford health care and a tendency to eat less healthy foods. Affording groceries is often a challenge for the poor. Researchers have also found that people who are poor are more likely to smoke, which is related to a number of different health problems. In addition, economic insecurity also can worsen mental health issues. Lack of access to health insurance is a major cause of disparities in health. Many people who live in poverty let illnesses and injuries go untreated, causing more complications.

Next, think about your neighborhood. Do you live near a coal-burning plant? Or a factory that emits pollution? Or is your drinking water supply drawn from polluted sources? If so, these are considered 'environmental factors' that lead to health disparities. A number of different diseases can result from exposure to environmental toxins, including respiratory illnesses, skin diseases, and certain types of cancer. Often, the members of communities exposed to environmental toxins are poor and minority, making this group more susceptible to these diseases.

Race and ethnicity are also factors in health disparities. On average, Black men and women are more likely to suffer a stroke or heart attack than members of other racial groups. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to die from certain forms of cancer than are Whites. This is often related to a lack of access to care and difficulties stemming from a lack of income, both of which are more likely among poor members of minority groups.

Now, think about where you shop for groceries. What kinds of foods do you eat? Does your local store, or a store within reasonable distance from home, provide healthy options?

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report stating that close to 40% of households in the U.S. do not have reasonable access to a grocery store that stocks healthy food. 'Reasonable access' is defined as a store that is within one mile of a person's residence. An area that lacks such access to healthy food is known as a food desert.

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