How Societal Influences Impact our Health Across the Lifespan

An interview about social determinants of health with Dr. Dawn Magnusson PT, PhD

Societal influences on our health deserve more attention than it gets. We hear often about the personally empowered tools of exercising, managing your stress, and meditating, but not enough about how our communities suffer because of misguided policies or socioeconomic disparities. These societal influences and factors are discrete or hidden and often impact entire communities.  

Thankfully, recent research has uncovered the details of how societal and generational issues have been influencing our health for decades. This has lead to the development of an amazing resource for how this impacts our patients in physical therapy with the recently published book, Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine in Physical Therapy.

Dr. Dawn Magnuson co-wrote the first chapter “Social Determinants of Health and Disease.” This chapter tackles an important, but often overlooked topic in healthcare: how social determinants contribute to a person’s health and quality of life. Simply put, our health is more complicated than simply eating right and exercising.

It turns out that an individual’s health across the lifespan is based on a myriad of factors. These can include things like sleep, exercise, nutrition, mental well-being, stress management, community/social interactions, and exposure to environmental toxins. However, societal factors will dramatically impact a person’s physical and mental health, more than most of us think.

Societal Influences on our Health Can Impact us at Anytime

The effects of societal influences on our health can impact a person’s likelihood of experiencing disease at any age. These diseases can even get passed onto subsequent generations.  Hello epigenetics! One negative example of this is the impact of maternal obesity and gestational diabetes.  These are both linked to the child having a 3-6x greater likelihood of developing Diabetes mellitus Type 2.

To contrast this, when children have strong relationship bonds in their infancy and childhood, their risk significantly decreases for developing obesity, Diabetes Mellitus Type 2, heart disease, and mental health concerns (like depression, chronic pain, and substance abuse disorders).

This clearly points out the need for advocating for policies and practices that support specific communities. Mothers and families are only one examples of communities that would benefit from better societal support.

Most of us now realize that there are several things within our control that can impact our health. We like to believe that our actions make the most difference, and while that may be true if you are higher up on the socioeconomic food chain…it’s far from reality for you if you are lower on that spectrum. Remember that what’s in your control matters…but health is more complicated than simply doing the right things for yourself.  

As Desmond Tutu stated, 

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river.  We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

Desmond Tutu

Chapter one in Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine in Physical Therapy gives you the why.  The other chapters in the book give you tools to keep them out of the river. It’s time to address the societal influences on our health for our patients and our communities.

Dr. Dawn Magnusson’s Contributions are Bringing Light to Society’s Impact on Health

Dawn Magnusson, PT, PhD

Societal influences on our health

Dawn is an Assistant Professor in the Physical Therapy Program at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. She received a PhD in Population Health Sciences, a certificate in Global Health, and an MS in Physical Therapy from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dawn completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in General Academic Pediatrics, with a focus on health disparities research, through the Department of Pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Her research employs community-based participatory research methods within a population health framework to:

  • Describe the distribution of health outcomes within a population
  • Understand the contribution and interconnectedness of multiple determinants of health within a population.
  • Inform the development of innovative, community-led solutions that advance health equity for historically excluded populations.

Fortunately, we had some time to ask Dr. Magnusson a little bit more about herself and how she got involved in Integrative & Lifestyle Medicine.

Q: Tell me about yourself. Also – what made you choose physical therapy? 

A: My name is Dawn and I use she/her pronouns. I grew up in Madison, WI and currently live in Denver, CO. I love exploring new places with my partner and fur baby!! My career aspirations were all over the place growing up and at some point along my journey, someone suggested I look into PT (thank you – whoever you are!!!) Once I learned that PTs worked with children, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

Q: What is your favorite thing about being a physical therapist?

A: Being a PT is such a privilege. I enjoy learning from others and working collaboratively (with individuals or communities) toward a shared goal or vision.

Q: How did you become interested in using Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine in your research or practice of physical therapy?

A: I pursued a PhD in Population Health Sciences nearly 10 years ago and learned about the multiple and intersecting factors that influence the health of individuals and populations over time. So much of our health and wellness is shaped by social and structural factors. As PTs it is imperative that we work alongside patients and communities to identify factors that influence, reduce risk factors, and strengthen protective factors (we sometimes forget about this piece).

Q: What do you think the biggest challenge facing physical therapists is today?

A: Our healthcare and payment systems are continually evolving toward population health and value-based models of care. In order to thrive and continue meeting the needs of society, we have to be able to demonstrate our value across settings and patient populations.  

Q for follow up: How do you think we can overcome or navigate this challenge?

A: Supporting diverse research methodologies, embracing population health and health informatics, and fulfilling our professional obligations to society. 

Q: If there was one thing from your chapter to influence health across the lifespan – that you thought everyone needed to know – what would it be?

A: Much of our health and wellness is shaped by what happens outside of our clinics and hospitals. We must work alongside our patients and communities to strengthen known protective factors and reduce known risk factors, including structural -isms.

Learn more about social determinants of health and integrative and lifestyle medicine at the resources below:

  1. Find out more about Dawn here.
  2. Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine in Physical Therapy