Cells to Society

Why Is All Health Not Created Equal? A Story of Cells to Society

By Lisa Stein


Assistant professor Emma Adam and doctoral student Leah Doane study cortisol levels indicating stress in adolescents

Assistant professor Emma Adam and doctoral student Leah Doane study cortisol levels indicating stress in adolescents.
Photo by Treavor Doherty


Professor P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale and other SESP faculty attend a C2S colloquium on the link between stress and illness

Professor P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale and other SESP faculty attend a C2S colloquium on the link between stress and illness
Professor P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale and other SESP faculty attend a C2S colloquium on the link between stress and illness.
Photos by Andrew Campbell
Just what makes a person, or an entire population, healthier or sicker than another has intrigued and puzzled researchers for a long time. In the United States, the data documenting health disparities between people of different races and socioeconomic levels paint a stark picture. A poor person is up to four times more likely than a middle-class or wealthy person to contract any major disease. A member of a racial or ethnic minority group carries a much higher risk of contracting diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Scientists still struggle with pinning down underlying causes and finding ways of making things better. Part of the problem lies in the mind-boggling complexity of factors contributing to health. We already know the huge roles that genetics and lifestyle choices play in achieving and maintaining health. But today scientists are placing increasing importance on additional factors such as social inequality, stress, and the quality of personal relationships and education. They recognize this connection with education: More educated people are generally healthier than less educated people, and healthier people are more educated than less healthy people.

"If we really want to understand the causes and consequences of disparities in our society, we need to look at people's biological responses to social environments," asserts P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, professor of human development and social policy in the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR). In other words, to what degree does someone's neighborhood, quality of marriage, stress levels and exposure to racial discrimination affect his or her health? How do those findings play out at the population level?

To help answer those questions, Chase-Lansdale and colleagues at IPR decided in 2004 to launch Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health. With Chase-Lansdale at the helm, C2S
By Lisa Stein