Individual Characteristics and Health

Individual Characteristics and
Session Aims
• To explore different influences on health at an
individual level
• To critique some of the key factors influencing
health at an individual level drawing on
current theory, research and debates
• To understand the extent to which individual
characteristics and experience influence
health throughout the life span
Individual Characteristics
• Developmental factors (foetal experiences,
age and constitutional factors)
• Social factors (such as gender)
• Psychological factors (such as personality)
Individual Characteristics
• Those which we are born with
• Those which we have little, or no, control over
• Note the complex relationships between the
individual and their environment as explored
by ecological perspectives
Influence of foetal development
• Development ‘in utero’
• Embryonic period (very early stages of
pregnancy – development of organs and
• Disruption of normal development at this
stage can have lasting effects on health
• For example, Spina Bifida, where the neural
tube does not develop properly, can result in
paralysis and cognitive impairment
• ‘Teratology’ – study of birth defects and problems
arising in pregnancy from environmental
• Examples of ‘Teratogens’ include alcohol,
cigarettes, drugs (over the counter medication as
well as illegal drugs), exposure to mother’s illness
and environmental pathogens (i.e. pollution)
(Bukatko and Daehler, 2001).
• Any of these might impact on the foetal
development and subsequent health experience.
Foetal Programming
• Foetal programming purports that the origins of
some diseases experienced in adulthood are
connected to adverse influences in the early
developmental stages of life – particularly life
before birth (as a foetus) (De Boo and Harding,
• Sometimes referred to as the ‘Barker Hypothesis’
• The hypothesis suggests that the foetus makes
physiological adjustments in utero in response to
environmental circumstances which prepare it for
life after birth and beyond.
Some Examples
• Size at birth is related to experience of disease and poorer
long-term health outcomes in later life (The Marmot Review,
• ‘Many lines of evidence, including epidemiologic data and
data from extensive clinical and experimental studies, indicate
that early life events play a powerful role in influencing later
susceptibility to certain chronic diseases’ (Gluckman et al,
• Another example is smoking during pregnancy which not only
influences weight at birth but can also increase the likelihood
of miscarriage and the development of childhood asthma
(Jaakkola and Gissler, 2004).
Foetal Alcohol Syndrome
• ‘FAS is a developmental disorder that can occur after heavy alcohol
use by pregnant women’ (Strömland et al, 2005:1121).
• FAS can cause a range of problems including growth (pre and post
natal), abnormal facial features, mental disability and behavioural
• There are a number of complex social factors involved in heavy
alcohol use during pregnancy and a range of maternal risk factors
associated with FAS including socio-economic status and
family/friends with alcohol problems as well as psychological
factors (May and Gossage, 2001).
• The adverse effects of FAS can last into young adulthood and
beyond and research has shown that the relationship between the
length of time that alcohol is consumed during pregnancy and
neuro-cognitive development carries on being significant into early
teenage (Korkman et al, 2003)
Influence of age
• Health is influenced in different ways at
different points during our journey through
• Our health needs and health goals change
throughout our lives (Sarafino, 2002) and are
inextricably linked to our age.
• This is also influenced by maturational factors
such as development of organic systems,
physical structures and our motor capabilities.
Life Stages
Pre-conception to birth
Infancy (0 – 4 years)
Childhood (including pre-puberty 5 – 9 years)
Puberty and Adolescence (10 -18 years)
Early Adulthood (19 – 25 years)
Middle Adulthood (26 – 50 years)
Late Adulthood (50 – 70 years and onwards)
Death and Dying
Influence of biology and biological sex
• Whether we are born biologically ‘male’ or ‘female’ has an influence on
our health.
• This influence begins before birth. For example, male foetuses are more
prone to miscarriage than female foetuses.
• Biochemical factors (hormonal factors) are also important in terms of
differences between the biological sexes. In women certain hormones
provide a protective factor for some diseases. For example levels of
oestrogen are influential in the development of cardio vascular disease
and osteoporosis.
• Reproductive health experience differs according to biological sex.
• Biologically determined differences in the origins of certain diseases and
illnesses are also physiologically based, for example, to do with the
specific male and female reproductive system.
Influence of gender
• Lifestyle factors differ according to gendered roles and
• Socially constructed ideas around feminine and
masculine heterogeneity can impact on health
throughout life.
• An example is help-seeking behaviour which differs
according to constructions of masculinity and
femininity - Research shows that women are more
likely than men to seek help and advice when
experiencing symptoms of ill-health.
• Gender differences also exist in a range of mental
health experiences throughout life.
Influence of hereditary & genetic factors
• Illness and disease, particularly in later life, are due largely to
the interaction of genetic and environmental factors from
very early childhood (Weaver, 2001).
• ‘Genetic Endowment’ refers to our biological destiny and it
can be extremely influential in the development of health
throughout life.
• There are many examples of diseases which have a genetic
component and which we may have a pre-disposition to
developing as we age due to our genetic inheritance. Such
examples include degenerative diseases such as dementia and
certain cancers such as breast and bowel cancer. In addition
there are also certain hereditary diseases carried on sex
chromosomes such as haemophilia and colour blindness.
• For example, cholesterol levels are, in part, determined by
genetic factors however, lifestyle and environmental factors
also have a part to play.
Influence of personality
• Personality may influence health in a number of
different ways. For example, in terms of what we do
and why we do it, as well as how we respond to things.
• each of us has a unique, ‘personality’ which may reveal
itself through different characteristics and cause us to
behave and react in certain ways but that groups of
people may share similar personality characteristics.
• Type A and Type B personalities
• Risk-taking and personality (sensation-seeking)
• Capability and resilience – linked to health experience
Nature/Nuture Debate
• This essentially concerns the extent to which we
are programmed by our biology (our genes and
biological sex for example), or by our social
environment to develop and behave in certain
ways. This has implications for health and health
• The ‘Nature versus Nuture’ debate is essentially
concerned with whether we are a ‘product’ of
our heredity or whether we are a ‘product’ of our
• The evidence suggests that health experience varies
according to, and is determined by, the result of a variety of
individual factors as proposed by Dalgren and Whitehead’s
(1991) model of determinants of health.
• There is also the link between individual characteristics and
behaviours which needs to be considered in terms of health
and health outcomes. Certain behaviours may be expected,
or even predicted, of a person based on their age, sex and
• Whilst biological differences may be relatively easily
separated out, socially constructed differences (gendered
roles of what is means to be labelled ‘male’ and ‘female’)
present a much more complex picture.
Promoting Health: A Lifespan
• Life course approaches to promoting health are based on the
assumption that health experience is influenced by different things
at different stages in life
• The Health Career is a means of conceptualising how these factors
impact on health as well as opportunities to promote health which
will also vary across the life span.
• For example, in early childhood several things may influence health
experience such as schooling and immediate family. In adulthood
influences will change and different things may come into play such
as significant relationships, the nature of employment and access to
health care services
• This is important because we continue to change and develop
during the course of our lives and therefore our health needs will
also be different at different points in time.
• Considering individual factors and their impact on health is
important in health studies for two key reasons:
1. It can help develop and deepen our understanding of
health experiences at an individual level.
2. An understanding of individual characteristics can help us
to design appropriate interventions to promote health.
When these factors are taken into account there is an
increased likelihood of success.
• However, it is not a straightforward process - individual
factors interact with a range of other factors such as our
social, political and physical environment. These have to be
taken into account.
• Individual characteristics are varied. They influence health
in many different ways throughout the lifespan.
• Differences at an individual level not only influence health
but also a range of other factors such as health behaviour
and how we interact with, and respond to, our wider social
and physical environment.
• Individual characteristics cannot be viewed in isolation and
need to be considered in terms of the complex interrelations with other systems such as social environment to
get a broader view of health and health experience.

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