Health and Life Course

Why do some people live longer, healthier lives than others? Why is education the most important predictor of health and longevity? How do our social networks influence our health and health behaviors? Sociology has long been interested in understanding the social causes and consequences of poor health and the underlying social processes that reproduce these connections under very different conditions. The sociology faculty at Penn State is an international leader in the study of social processes related to health and illness. This includes the relationship between health and the family, immigration, the life course, and systems of social inequality.

The experience of both “good” physical and mental health is socially constructed and rooted in social processes. Our health is influenced by our social connections, our social characteristics (e.g., race, ethnicity and gender), where we live, our socioeconomic resources, and how we interact with social institutions (e.g., families, schools, churches, and the health care system). These social determinants of health generate tremendous inequalities in health experiences and the risk of disease, violence, and premature death.

The study of health is also the study of the life course--how key life course transitions and processes unfold over our lifetimes. Life course processes are embedded within social institutions and historical moments and, in turn, connect individual change and development to population health.

We examine the biological, behavioral, environmental, social and economic determinants of health; the generation and reproduction of health disparities; the social processes leading to key life course transitions; and the consequences of these transitions for individual health and well-being.

Faculty Research

How does society get under the skin to affect health?

  • Why are some people healthier than others? (Daw, Hardy, Martin)
  • How do social environments and biology interact to affect health? (Daw)
  • How do social factors constrain peoples’ health decisions and health experiences? ( Dodoo, Graif,  K. Thomas)
  • How does poverty make you sick? (Graif, Hardy, Martin)

How do our social relationships affect health?

  • Does dating and marriage improve health? ( Dodoo, Frisco, Kreager, Luke, Staff)
  • How do parents and families affect children’s health? (Font, Frisco, Martin, Staff)
  • With regard to health, why do men benefit more from marriage than women? (Luke)
  • How do peers affect adolescent health & development and, in turn, to what degree do health behaviors shape peer groups? (Daw, Frisco, Kreager, Staff)

3. How do life stages and changes across the life course affect well-being?

  • How does childhood determine how long you live? (Haas, Staff)
  • How do social patterns and processes organized by one’s age, birth cohort, and the historical periods you live through affect well-being (Haas, Hardy, Luo)
  • How does incarceration affect health and families? (Kreager, Staff)
  • How are health practices shaped by life course transitions? (Daw, Dodoo, Frisco, Haas, Hardy, Staff)
  • How does age at migration matter for immigrants’ health and health behaviors? (Van Hook)

4. How does where you live matter for health?

  • Why are immigrants generally healthier than native-born people? (Graif, Frisco, Martin, Van Hook)
  • How does globalization and global changes affect health (Graif, Haas, Matthews)
  • How do neighborhoods of residence and places of daily activities affect health? (Graif, Matthews, Van Hook)
  • How do built and social environments affect health? ( Dodoo, Frisco, Matthews, Van Hook)

5. What do global health trends mean for sustainability?

  • What is the impact of the education revolution on world health? (Baker)
  • In the Northern Hemisphere, how does the "greying" of the population and cohort succession affect health care demands and trends in chronic disease? (Baker, Hardy)
  • What factors are influencing the epidemiological transition in the Southern Hemisphere? (Baker)