During trying times, Personal Determinants of Health may help improve overall well-being

We all face adversity at one point or another in our lives that may affect our happiness and overall well-being. And adversity has not been in short supply during the COVID-19 pandemic. In many cases, we’re given opportunities to adapt or grow from these experiences, in order to come out stronger on the other side. However, our level of resiliency may do more than help us cope with life’s challenges — it may help improve our health.

We know there are many factors that may impact a person’s health that go beyond the doctor’s office. Some of the most well-understood are referred to as Social Determinants of Health (SDOH). These are the conditions in which we live and work that affect our well-being, including factors such as food security, housing and transportation.

But what do we know about the personal factors that influence our health and happiness? And how do they impact us during the different stages of life? Researchers with UnitedHealthcare and AARP Services, Inc. (ASI) developed a framework called Personal Determinants of Health (PDOH) for understanding the factors that help us cope with adversity and thrive through aging. These characteristics also tend to help people get the most out of their health care experiences, provider interactions and community resources. This framework can act as a complement to SDOH with the intention of creating a holistic picture of one’s health.

The idea of PDOH depends upon on strong resilience — the ability to bounce back from life’s challenges and cope with difficult experiences — which individuals may build and improve upon as they age.

“A positive outlook on aging and the power of resiliency can help us adapt and support our ability to lead healthier lives,” said Dr. Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer of AARP Services, Inc.

UnitedHealthcare and ASI research proposes that resilience is built through three key characteristics:

  • Purpose: Having goals, a sense of direction and meaning in life
  • Possibility: Optimism regarding the future and/or positive perceptions about aging
  • People: Having strong social connections to support optimal health outcomes

In today’s changing world, the ability to bounce back and cope with stressors has gained increased attention. For many seniors, everyday life continues to be disrupted with the ongoing pandemic. Physical distancing has curtailed opportunities for connection for those who may already be struggling with loneliness.

These impacts may cause a lasting epidemic of social isolation, especially among the most vulnerable. Eventually, this trend could worsen physical and mental health, leading to reduced longevity or poor quality of life. Thus, initiatives are greatly needed to reach those at highest risk to help boost their resilience.

Together, UnitedHealthcare and ASI continue to study the factors of PDOH to learn more about its importance for ultimately leading to better health outcomes and experiences with care. Through numerous programs, they have learned it is possible to strengthen resilience even later in life. Intervention approaches showing promise have focused on multiple components, including:

  • Happiness and optimism games
  • Mindfulness practice
  • Problem-solving techniques
  • Expressive writing
  • Friendship and peer support programs (virtual)

By first defining important personal determinants to support resilience, these interventions can be tailored to increase the possibility of improved health outcomes, member experiences and overall quality of life.

“We need to change the conversation about what it means to grow older, to challenge outdated stereotypes about aging and empower people to choose how they live as they age,” Dr. Yeh said. “Aging is not about decline and negativity, but the ability to adapt and thrive.”

Learn more about this research.

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