Social Epidemiology is Different (And Important!)

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Social Epidemiology is different from Epidemiology because it looks at “the cause of the causes”. Social Epidemiology combines the data collection and analysis of Epidemiology with the expertise of Sociology, Social Psychology, Political Science, and Economics together in order to get a better idea of the social causes of disease. Social Epidemiologists want to know what social interactions and man made environments cause people to become sick or stay healthy. Traditional Epidemiology focuses on studying the results of natural environment and genetics- who is sick, who isn’t, and where the sickness is happening. They hope by studying these patterns they will get to the source of the illness and stop it through interventions of medically or with regulations. Usually this method of study is thought of in terms of exotic and dangerous diseases such as malaria or Ebola. These are still studied in third world countries using traditional EPI methods, but these methods are used in the first world to study chronic conditions.

Personally I feel that social epidemiology is the future of studying chronic conditions. Chronic conditions are defined as illnesses that  in the past would have killed people but now are manageable through medical interventions, extending patients’ lives.  Examples include arthritis,cancer (to an extent)  diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. These conditions are not caused by one single germ or virus. Some of them we don’t even understand what causes their onset at all. It is likely that a combination of the patients’ environment and genetics cause their onset and can influence whether or not patients live longer or how much they suffer. So in the cases of these diseases it does not make sense to look at them in the traditional epidemiological way. If you went and looked at a group of people and found that a great many of them had Alzheimer’s, and then:

-you counted them up

– then stated the cause of Alzheimer’s was the malfunctioning brain cells in their body

-and that it was not transmitted person to person

– they were all between ages of 65 and 80

-that it seemed to be centered in a specific area of the city

-then called it a day

that would not be very helpful. Now if you were a social epidemiologist you would go to the group of people, see that they all have Alzheimer’s and start asking questions. You would say- “What socioeconomic status are these patients? Do they have a similar social strata? Is that somehow related to their disease? Who do they see every day? What are their mental activities? Is their a genetic history of Alzheimer’s in their family? What kind of medical treatment are they getting?” and so on. I’m not saying that traditional epidemiologists would not ask these questions, but that social epidemiologists give these questions and their answers much greater importance in their research. And I think, because these chronic diseases are so complex and are such a huge part of our current health status here in the US, that  social epidemiology should become our new default method of study and research.

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