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Poll Finds Factors Large And Small Shape People's Health

We often think of health as a trip to the doctor or a prescription to treat or prevent diseases. Or maybe it's an operation to fix something that's gone wrong.

But a new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reveals that Americans perceive health as being affected by a broad range of social and cultural factors.

Much of our series, What Shapes Health, explores how doctors and other health professionals pay little attention to early childhood experiences as a fundamental cause of health problems. We look at efforts to change this.

Our poll also found that Americans don't see just one factor as the most important cause of individuals' health problems.

When people rated the importance of 14 possible causes of ill health, five factors jumped to the top: lack of access to high-quality medical care; personal behavior; viruses or bacteria; high stress; and being exposed to pollution. It's a question never before asked in a poll like this.

It's worth noting that African Americans, Latinos and low-income Americans have somewhat different perceptions than others. For example, African Americans are much more likely to say factors such as eating a poor diet in childhood and not graduating from high school have an "extremely important" impact on a person's health later in life.

One of the most striking findings in the poll is that 54 percent of Americans believe that being abused or neglected in childhood is an extremely important cause of health problems later in life. And more than a third said it was "very important."

Income figured prominently. One example: When we asked whether people were better off health wise than their parents, those with higher household incomes ($75,000 a year or more) were more likely than those with household incomes of less than $25,000 a year to say they were better off, and less likely to say they were worse off.

Some of us were surprised that so many people feel they have a great deal or quite a bit of control over their own health. Diseases can seem so random.

Be sure to come back to Shots this week and next for more reporting in our series. You can find the complete poll results here.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit

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