Stanford Medicine magazine spotlights social determinants of health, the nonmedical factors that make or break us

The new issue of Stanford Medicine magazine features articles about the ways nonmedical factors can help or hinder our health and presents initiatives to promote health equity.

- By Rosanne Spector

The new issue of Stanford Medicine magazine focuses on factors that affect health, such as education, income, race, housing and social support.
Illustration by Bryce Wymer

“The color of your skin, the community you belong to, and the place you call home remain the largest predictors of health and longevity. Far more than your doctor or what’s written in your DNA,” writes Stanford School of Medicine dean Lloyd Minor, MD, in the new issue of Stanford Medicine magazine.

The issue’s special report, Real-world Health: How Social Factors Make or Break Us, features articles about the ways nonmedical factors — such as education, food security, housing, income, race and social support — can bolster or hamper our health. Also included are articles about efforts to promote health equity.

As Stanford Medicine experts explain in the issue’s lead article, these nonmedical factors, termed social determinants of health, are receiving renewed focus at Stanford Medicine and throughout the health profession — attention spurred by the murder of George Floyd by police and the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color.

“Understanding that social determinants of health can limit a patient’s ability to consider clinical trials, for example, allows us to attempt to dismantle those barriers, as an institution and as clinicians,” neuro-oncologist Reena Thomas, MD, PhD, clinical associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences, says in the lead article.

Published research on social determinants of health has increased 600% over the past decade, with a steep rise since 2020, and clinicians like Thomas are caring for patients with the knowledge that nonmedical factors affect their patients’ health.

Also in the issue is a Q&A with Stanford University’s newest Nobelist, Carolyn Bertozzi, PhD, on why she loves collaborating and what makes joint efforts successful, as well as several articles focusing on basic human biology, particularly the process used by cells to make proteins.

The theme package on social determinants of health includes:

·      A roundup of educational, clinical, research and community initiatives addressing the challenges presented by social determinants of health — from screening pediatric patients for food insecurity; to the first large-scale, nationwide survey of LGBTQ health; to a partnership with Roots Community Health Center clinic to identify needs and challenges in using telehealth services.

·      A story about the challenge of coping with breast cancer when your culture considers talking about breasts taboo. This article focuses on research by Ranak Trivedi, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, on the experiences of South Asian women in the U.S. with breast cancer.

·      A Q&A with health equity expert Alyce Adams, PhD, the inaugural Stanford Medicine Innovation Professor, in which she talks with Priya Singh, Stanford Medicine’s chief strategy officer and senior associate dean, about what motivates her and what gives her hope when it comes to improving health for underserved populations.

·      A look into what’s behind the extraordinary longevity and health of people in Nicoya, Costa Rica, and a few other places around the globe known as blue zones. The article describes research by David Rehkopf, ScD, an associate professor of epidemiology and population health, indicating that certain social factors can keep cells young.

·      An article highlighting the work and perspectives of Stanford Health Care clinicians providing care to homeless people at Peninsula Healthcare Connection in Palo Alto, California.

·      A feature about pediatrician Anisha Patel’s quest to fight childhood obesity via safe, appealing drinking water. Research conducted by Patel, an associate professor of pediatrics, helped make the case for legislation requiring schools to provide free water. Through her partnerships with San Francisco Bay Area schools, she is also exploring ways to encourage children to drink water, rather than soda or juice.

The issue also features two articles on protein synthesis:

·      A discussion on ribosomes, the molecular machines that translate mRNA into proteins, explains startling research by Maria Barna, PhD, an associate professor of genetics, that has upended the central dogma of genetics. Her work shows that ribosomes are unexpectedly choosy about which genes they translate, which has big implications for biomedical research.

·      A look back at the making of a cult classic film from 1971, Protein Synthesis: An Epic on the Cellular Level, which joyfully depicts — through dance, psychedelic music and “Jabberwocky”-inspired verse — how proteins are made. The film features a young Professor Paul Berg, PhD, who later won a Nobel in chemistry, and a cast of dozens of Stanford University students.

Stanford Medicine magazine is available online at as well as in print. Request a copy by sending an email to

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