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ASA Co-Sponsors Health Briefing on Capitol Hill

Evidence continues to accumulate that social influences can have a profound effect on health. Numerous recent reports of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) (see table) and one from the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were aimed at explicating these pathways and in setting a course for behavioral and social sciences research at the NIH.

This message was too important to be locked away in scholarly reports and discussed exclusively in academic circles, and, as a result, the American Sociological Association (ASA), as part of the Coalition for the Advancement of Health through Behavioral and Social Science Research, organized a Congressional briefing for policymakers, their staffs, and federal agency representatives. The briefing, entitled “Promoting Health in a Stressful World,” was sponsored by Congresswoman Connie Morella in whose district the NIH sits.

Three speakers from psychology, sociology, and social work addressed themes found in the seven NAS and NIH reports. The speakers described the mechanisms by which stress affects health, the impact of social connections in reducing stress, and coping and resiliency following traumatic life events. Sociology was prominently represented by speaker Christine Bachrach, Immediate Past-Chair of ASA's Section on Sociology of Population, and a paper from Linda George, Chair of ASA's Section on Aging and Life Course.

Moderator Raynard Kington, Director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research and Acting Director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, set the stage by providing an overview of major themes. Kington noted that the goal of the briefing was to show that a multi-level framework that fully accounts for social-level influences on biology-research that necessarily includes basic research on social constructs and processes-will provide a more complete picture of how to prevent and treat disease.

The first panelist, Neil Schneiderman, Professor of Psychology, Medicine, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami, described “when and how stress leads to disease.” Schneiderman described research findings linking psychosocial factors to coronary heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and cancer. According to Schneiderman, one pathway from social factors to health outcomes is through behaviors such as smoking, sedentary lifestyle, and overconsumption of calories. Another pathway, noted Schneiderman, involves triggering stress hormones which can have enormous effects on the immune system and the progression of disease.

Following Schneiderman, Sociologist Christine Bachrach, Chief of the Demographic and Behavioral Sciences Branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, described the NIH's new roadmap for research on social and cultural influences on health, and highlighted research examples showing the effect of social-level factors on health. Bachrach noted that asthma, for example, is known to be affected not only by one's physical environment, but also one's social environment, especially where stress is involved.

Bachrach also said that planning was underway for a new and comprehensive interagency study, the National Children's Study, that will track children pre-birth to 21 years of age (see page 3 for an article on the study). “Everywhere you look, people are recognizing the absolute necessity of examining social factors as contributors to health outcomes. We see it in the NAS reports, the NIH conference, and here again in the planning for this new federal study,” said Bachrach.

Supplementing the materials on social factors, ASA provided a paper by Linda George on “the health-promoting effects of social bonds” written especially for the occasion. The paper highlighted the point that social bonds (through social support and community engagement) promote physical health, mental health, and longevity, even after accounting for every other predictor of health and longevity that is known. George wrote, “in addition to directly affecting health, social support substantially reduces the detrimental effects of both acute and chronic stress on health.” George noted, however, that the above positive effects of social bonds hold true only for people in high-quality relationships. Low-quality relationships, on the other hand, can actually harm physical and mental health.

Rounding out the day, Curtis McMillen, Associate Professor at the Washington University George Warren Brown School of Social Work, described how people who have faced severe adversity often report that there have been positive by-products despite the difficult experience. These positive by-products often include a sense of increased compassion, increased family closeness, increased spirituality, and changed life priorities.

As Kington emphasized during the briefing, “The scientific community stands at extraordinary crossroads.” The hope is that the new enthusiasm regarding the importance of social-level factors in health will translate into funding to build and expand scientific knowledge in these areas.