Importance of Behavioral Factors and Social Determinants Highlighted

August 21, 2019

Social and behavioral factors affect life-course development and are a topic of interest in Washington DC.

A report, “The Promise of Adolescence; Realizing Opportunity for All Youth,” was recently released by the National Academies Board on Children, Youth, and Families, a division of the National Academies of Science. This document on the adolescent brain outlines key changes in brain structure and the impact of social factors on young people’s development during this critical phase of the lifespan.

Comprised of researchers in psychology, economics, public health, youth development, and related areas, the committee included prominent experts from FABBS member societies and affiliates; including Elizabeth Cauffman, UC Irvine; Mesmin Destin, Northwestern; and Nancy E. Hill; Society for Research in Child Development.

The report explains that as adolescents develop, the connections between their brain regions become stronger and more efficient, and over time, unused connections erode. This suggests that adolescent brains are adaptable, and are influence by their particular environmental and social demands. Increased cognitive abilities aid young people in developing a sense of identity, self direction, social status, and independent decision-making skills. Adolescent brains are not merely developed child brains or immature adult brains, but belong in their own category, as they function to meet the needs of this unique stage of life.   

Another interesting highlight is the connection between environmental factors and adolescent development, particularly the impact of economic, social, behavioral, and structural inequity. These social determinants have a key role in shaping the life-course trajectory of young people; less affluent youth may be exposed earlier to stressors, demands, and hardship, and these factors “get under the skin,” affecting both the brain and the body. A key example is the higher propensity for chronic conditions among low-income and minority youth. The committee assessed how this trend can lead to negative outcomes later in the lifespan; poor health in adolescence reduces educational attainment, which limits eventual employment options, earning potential, and general health and wellbeing in adulthood.

In late July, a bipartisan bill known as the Social Determinants Accelerator Act of 2019 was introduced in the House. The bill, cosponsored by Congresswoman Bustos (D-IL), Congressman Cole (R-OK), Congressman McGovern (D-MA), and Congresswoman McMorris-Rogers (R-WA), aims to address social determinants of health and wellness by providing grants and assistance to state, federal, and tribal healthcare systems to address issues such as healthcare costs and patient outcomes. This bill is intended to assist vulnerable populations such as those on Medicaid, the elderly, and the homeless; up to 20 percent of the funding would also be earmarked for those in urban areas. The Social Determinants Act would also direct The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to convene an interagency advisory council on the social determinants of health, with representatives from the Department of Agriculture, The Department of Housing and Urban Development, The Department of Labor, private sector and community-based organizations, and state and local governments. A one page summary of the bill can be found here.