A recent survey revealed that the US ranks poorly among industrialized nations as far as health care and economic opportunities for women. Another new study makes another strike against the US: For all that the US spends on health care, wide disparities exist for Americans. Life expectancy for poorer US citizens is five years less than that for affluent citizens, say researchers from Rice University and the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Social scientists looked at historical data from 1930 through 2000 from the Human Mortality Database, to identify trends in mortality and predict life expectancy to the year 2055.
In 1930, average life expectancy was 59.85 years; by 2000, it was 77.1 years. But, says Justin Denney, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University who was the lead author for the study, most of the gains in life expectancy were made in the 1930s, 1950s and 1960s. Life expectancy has “flattened out” since that time.
Another trend that Denney notes is that, in those times when life expectancy has increased, the disparities between more and less advantaged groups have also grown. That is, “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, inequality grows and life expectancy is dramatically impacted.”
One reason behind this is that people who are more financially stable are better able to treat “many of the chronic conditions that have led to smaller gains in life expectancy,” whether by having more time in their lives to exercise, to live in healthier environments with less pollution, to obtain and prepare healthier foods and to pay for therapies (such as psychotherapy) that might help their overall health in ways seen and unseen. Plus, those with lower incomes may well live in places where there are “food deserts“; where it is harder to maintain a diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and low in fats and sugars.
The life expectancy study, which is to be published in Social Science Quarterly, shows “the ugly side of inequality,” as Denney puts it. It also underscores the fact that, despite the “disproportionate” amount of funds the US spends on health care, life expectancy in the US is going “down the ladder of international rankings of length of life.” Long-term health and prosperity are not necessarily coordinated.
Denney’s study underscores the link between economic status and health though other studies show that just the advantages of a higher income do not always mean better outcomes for your health. An article in the medical journal The Lancet found that young people aged 10 – 24 years in the US have the highest mortality rate among 27 high-income countries around the world, with American youth #1 in smoking marijuana and among the top binge drinkers in the world, and one-third of American children categorized as obese. With all of our resources and know-how, we ought to be doing something of a better job taking care of ourselves — you’d think.
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Photo by Franco Folini