Depending on their social position, individuals are exposed more or less to things that make them healthy or unhealthy. This includes

  • how much money they have available
  • access to supportive social networks and relationships
  • the physical environment, e.g. polluted air, green spaces, damp housing.

The balance of positive and negative aspects of an individual's environment can have an effect on the balance of exposure to health promoting or health damaging factors.

However, the influence goes much deeper. Physical and social environments shape the options available to us and choices we make. For example, a person’s unhealthy diet is often the result of

  • individual factors such as low income
  • socially influenced individual decisions and behaviours
  • wider environmental factors such as access to decent cooking facilities.

Individual experiences and health inequalities

The ability to live in ways that create and sustain health is influenced by factors largely beyond our control. The impact becomes apparent early on for children conceived and growing up in challenging environments.

These effects can build up and persist over the life course. For example, low birthweight babies who experience disadvantage early in life have more coronary heart disease in adulthood.

Exposure to harm in the wider environment at certain periods of development, such as early childhood and adolescence, can have a cumulative effect and shape health outcomes in later life.

Policies, evidence and action

To substantially reduce health inequalities we need policies that tackle their underlying causes – the unequal distribution of income, wealth and power. This must be balanced with policies to reduce the consequences of inequalities on individuals.   

Policy, evidence and actions aimed at reducing the impact of these individual experiences are covered in our health topics section.

There are also policies, evidence and actions to reduce inequalities which are aimed at specific population groups.