Sickness is bad for your health

by Russ Roberts on April 28, 2008

in Data, Fooled by Randomness, Health

Evidently, smoking, obesity and diabetes are bad for your health. So is sickness. Death is bad for your life expectancy. So discovers the New York Times:

THROUGHOUT the 20th century, it was an American birthright that each
generation would live longer than the last. Year after year, almost
without exception, the anticipated life span of the average American
rose inexorably, to 78 years in 2005 from 61 years in 1933, when
comprehensive data first became available.

But new research shows that those reassuring nationwide gains mask a
darker and more complex reality. A pair of reports out this month
affirm that the rising tide of American health is not lifting all
boats,…

I’m going to stop the quote there for a moment.

Is the reality really "darker and more complex?" Does anyone really think that "the rising tide of American health" lifts all boats?

Does anyone think that rising life expectancy is really a birthright?

If you go sky-diving every week without a parachute or even with one, you don’t live as long as the average. If you smoke a lot and eat too much, you might not live as long as the average:

The most startling evidence came last week in a government-sponsored
study by Harvard researchers who found that life expectancy actually
declined in a substantial number of counties from 1983 to 1999,
particularly for women. Most of the counties with declines are in the
Deep South, along the Mississippi River, and in Appalachia, as well as
in the southern Plains and Texas.

The study, published in the
journal PLoS Medicine, concluded that the progress made in reducing
deaths from cardiovascular disease, thanks to new drugs, procedures and
prevention, began to level off in those years. Those gains, as they
shrank, were outpaced by rising mortality from lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes. Smoking, which peaked for women later than for men, is thought to be a major contributor, along with obesity and hypertension.

Read the rest of the story if you really want to know why this unsurprising absolutely unstartling finding confirms the world view of John Edwards.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments

comments

Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

{ 31 comments }

Jeff April 28, 2008 at 3:09 pm

Wow, now we've got birthrights?! I was quite content with my human and/or universal rights. But the more rights the merrier!

Thanks for your post, Russ. I'm going to contact my state Senator, Sherrod Brown, about this latest crisis.

Chris April 28, 2008 at 3:11 pm

This is a perfect illustration of causation v. correlation.

Based on that article, it seems clear that these people are dying more frequently due to smoking and poor eating and exercise habits.

Now, it seems that smoking and poor habits also correlate fairly well with poverty. And, as a result, there is a correlation between poverty and these sorts of deaths.

The NYT article, though, seems to view this as causation — these people are sick and dying because they're POOR, not because of bad habits. Of course, they're not so poor that they can't afford cigarettes or overeating.

It sounds like the biggest problem is with education, not healthcare.

scott clark April 28, 2008 at 4:06 pm

The biggest problem seems to be not understanding what an average is and the fact that people will fall over the place around the average. Statistical illitercy (or would it be innumeracy?) has got to be a leading cause of death for productive discussion.

Mathieu Bedard April 28, 2008 at 5:45 pm

Liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and increasing life expectancy!

LowcountryJoe April 28, 2008 at 8:42 pm

Now studies have to cherry-pick particular small regions to find bad news?

So, Russ, stop with picking on John Edwards. This just confirms what he's been saying for the last five years: that there really are two Americas; one is ever-changing in its geography and contains all the skewed data sets that the pessimists will ever need.

piperTom April 28, 2008 at 10:20 pm

Most excellent, Sir Russell. Exactly the sort of thing that keeps me coming back to Cafe Hayek.

Gil April 28, 2008 at 10:32 pm

Alexander the Great conquered the known world by age 35 therefore long lifespans are unnecessary.

Ray Gardner April 28, 2008 at 11:09 pm

My first ever letter to an editor was in response to a Scientific American issue about 10 years ago. Some professor from Yale was trying to introduce the idea of raising the minimum wage precisely because smoking was more prominent among poorer people.

His logic went thus: If we give poor people more money, they will feel better about themselves, and not feel the need to smoke and participate in other unhealthy practices.

I posited that perhaps they would simply buy more cigarettes.

LowcountryJoe April 29, 2008 at 7:44 am

Alexander the Great conquered the known world by age 35 therefore long lifespans are unnecessary.

Romanticizing about tyrants and imperialism, Gil? I would have never expected that from someone on the Left. I eagerly await your snarky anti-Bush comments in a response.

Tom April 29, 2008 at 8:03 am

"Romanticizing about tyrants and imperialism, Gil? I would have never expected that from someone on the Left. "

I would have expected EXACTLY that.

Hammer April 29, 2008 at 9:11 am

I secretly love the fact that the greatest scourge to our nation's poor is that there is just too much food to eat, as well as too many cigarettes. I have to wonder how many countries are worried that their poor are being killed by cheese puffs and smokes. I bet they would love to trade problems.

vidyohs April 29, 2008 at 1:11 pm

Hammer,

Com'on man, have you no heart? The poor have to suffer eating those cheese puffs and puffing the cigs in A/C, in front of a color TV, with a working refrigerator in the kitchen; and worse they have to suffer that A/C in their own autos as they drive their Lone Star welfare card to the corner to pick up their lotto tickets…..now what thrid world nation's poor has to suffer like that?

vidyohs April 29, 2008 at 1:12 pm

Thrid world? Ooops.

FreedomLover April 29, 2008 at 1:58 pm

God news for everyone, we're all going to die. Might as well enjoy the cheese puffs and a smoke.

Andrew Foti April 29, 2008 at 7:26 pm

It is a good thing that someone is reminding us that smoking and eating food that is not good for you can kill you. Do people really care all that much that the average lifespan is declining most people don't worry about that they are more concerned about themselves.

vidyohs April 29, 2008 at 7:45 pm

Andrew Foti,

Assuming your comment was serious, are you saying that….hmm, are you saying maybe…..on second thought I'll just ask, what are you saying? I can't really make sense of it. Who is concerned about what and who isn't? Could you clarify please?

Capt. Obvious (Ret.) April 29, 2008 at 9:57 pm

In other words, even the poorest of the poor now have enough money to spend on the life shortening luxuries of chain smoking and overeating.

Gil April 29, 2008 at 11:46 pm

Just saying that the best years are before 45 or so which is about as long as people in times past actually lived. Therefore? Long lives are not needed for success – the best entrepreneurs made their wealth whilst relatively young(-ish). If extending life expectancies merely extends the eldery part of it then it not really that big of a deal.

Thomas A. Coss April 30, 2008 at 1:19 am

I met a physician at a clinical poster session who described his research on patients with very bad congestive heart failure. In interviewing many patients with fairly debilitating heart disease he was surprised to discover that the patients didn't much mind dying, "they just didn't want to come back and see me".

In this case, he went on, the important statistic was morbidity (getting sick to where they needed to be admitted) rather than mortality (or dying).

Medicine is figuring this out, that the mortality statistic is not the only measurement of success.

John S. April 30, 2008 at 4:43 am

This is just another version of the quintessential New York Times story:

Lifespans fall: women, minorities hit hardest.

life insurance broker Toronto April 30, 2008 at 8:16 am

Working as a Toronto life insurance broker my experience is that people are not enough conscious about what is bad or beneficial for them. They need better health education and instead of physicians filling in forms and sending their patients for sometimes useless examinations explaining them the possible results of their lifestyle would be more effective. Therefore the health care system should be more consumer-based.

Martin Brock April 30, 2008 at 8:17 am

I agree. It's a boiler plate story. When male life expectancy falls relative to female life expectancy, I guess that's dog biting man, and dogs biting men is less newsworthy than dogs biting women … or something like that.

Maybe we should double cigarette taxes but only for women and minorities.

To be fair, the article doesn't hide the fact that behavior related health problems account for much of this observation.

Martin Brock April 30, 2008 at 8:19 am

Correction: When male life expectancy rises relative to female life expectancy, I guess that's dog biting man …

Martin Brock April 30, 2008 at 8:20 am

No. I had it right the first time …

Mari April 30, 2008 at 8:47 am

You can educate someone about the risks of smoking, eating fatty foods, etc. Doesn't mean they'll care. My smoker friends are biting back saying "Don't judge me," and looking very annoyed. Just as I know a breakfast of granola with soy milk is far more healthy than the warmed croissant with farmer's market goat cheese I'm having now, I don't care. I'll have the granola & soy later in the week and cut down on the breakfasts that clog my arteries. But I love good food, my friends love smoking, and historically, everyone dies in the end.

Hammer April 30, 2008 at 9:20 am

Yea, I agree with Mari (though soy milk? gah!) I refuse to believe that anyone in the USA is unaware that smoking is bad for them. Is anyone out there seriously meeting smokers who, upon being told "Dude, that will kill you", scream "REALLY! No one told me!" while throwing it away and thanking you profusely?
Everyone knows smoking is unhealthy. Everyone knows fatty foods are not really good for you, or at least everyone knows that is the common concensuss. Yet everyone knows folks who smoke, or eat too much or the wrong stuff, etc. They just don't care enough to stop, because generally people don't believe things that gradually get bad actually ever get bad, no matter how much you tell them or show them evidence.

That's just the way of it. You can't legislate wisdom.

Cassandra April 30, 2008 at 10:04 pm

The region in the U.S. (ie. the Deep South) that cooks with bacon grease gets advanced heart disease. Surprise. Surprise.

Gail May 2, 2008 at 3:47 am

Did anyone watch the PBS series Unnatural Causes? The liberals know exactly when American life expectancy began to decline – in the 80's, when Reaganomics was working. So how come American life expectancy did not rise when Clinton was in the White House for eight years?

Has anyone considered the increased number of births resulted from fertility treatment since 1980? Research shows that fertility treatment often produces underweight babies who have higher rate of obesity, diabetes, heart disease when they grow up.

Also, since 1980, people eat out much oftener, and there are a lot more buffet restaurants. I recall in the mid 80s I had to drive a long way to find a beffet.

Liberals believe health can only be otained by money. According to them, MA is the healthiest state, because it has the highest health care spending per capita.

I am healthier than most people because I work out and eat plenty of vegetables. But accordin to liberals, my better health is a result of my better income, thus is a social injustice.

Liberals want a universal health care which charges everyone the same premium, like in Germany, which is 14% of the total income. If they get their way, my husband and I might be paying $30k a year for health insurance. Yet we have not been sick for 28 years !!

Matt May 2, 2008 at 5:58 pm

One of the reasons that the population of Germany and many other nations do not balk at paying 14% of their total income is because they have a sense of common identity – "I pay 14% of my income to fund health care for others because we're all Germans/Swedes/Taiwanese, and if I were sick I would wish them to do the same for me." This is in contrast to the US which is essentially a random conglomeration of consumers that live in the spaces between strip malls, where Me is number one first, last, and all of the time.

The idea that if one just lives a healthy lifestyle, eats their vegetables, and exercises that they won't get sick seems like a common notion among Americans, a kind of quaint extrapolation of the "American Dream" that everyone is completely in charge of their own destiny. Genetics, environmental factors, poverty, and pure bad luck play an equal part – but people who have never experienced debilitating illness will always use the "they brought it upon themselves" copout to avoid a hard look at what the responsibilities of a people to each other in anything worthy of the name "Nation" are.

Jeremy May 5, 2008 at 3:12 am

This quote is kind of self-evident. People back in the early 1900's die sooner then today due to technological advances that we have. The only reason the percentages are not higher is because of of people smoking and not exercising? Well that is just a given and those kinds of people just need to step up in order to have a longer life span.
The idea that if one just lives a healthy lifestyle, eats their vegetables, and exercises that they won't get sick seems like a common notion among Americans, a kind of path to the "American Dream" that everyone is completely in charge of their own destiny. Genetics, environmental factors, poverty, and pure bad luck play an equal part – but people who have never experienced debilitating illness will always use the "they brought it upon themselves" copout to avoid a hard look at what the responsibilities of a people to each other in anything worthy of the name nation are.

Steve C May 18, 2008 at 7:44 pm

Nice Post. Here is a fitness tip for all: Water Works for Weight Loss Nothing quells the appetite like water, lots and lots of water. Start out with two quart bottles in the morning and carry one with you to work or wherever you go. If you like, divvy up the 64 ounces of water into eight (8-ounce) bottles or four pint (16-ounce) bottles to carry around with you all day. Freeze half of them the night before and they will last all day, even in a hot car. Keep some unfrozen so they will be ready to drink immediately. Yes. You will have to make more frequent bathroom trips, but it is worth it. Drink your 64 ounces of water before dinner, if possible, so you're not up half the night going to the bathroom. Water not only fills you up and lessens your appetite, it prevents those "hungry horrors" we all encounter when our blood sugar drops and we reach for cookies, candy, ice cream, fries or other high-calorie treats. Water also flushes out the system, rids the body of bloat and toxins and rosies up the complexion. Now, start splashing.

Previous post:

Next post: