What is the relationship between economy and health? In this lesson, we discuss differences in healthcare and medical issues in low-income versus high-income countries. We also define social epidemiology and discuss the link between poverty and poor health.
Economy and Health
Economy and health are inseparably linked, and life expectancy at birth is a measure of the overall health of a nation. Not surprisingly, life expectancy tends to be highest in industrialized nations. Japan is a country with one of the highest life expectancies; at 83 years, citizens of Japan enjoy long lives. Citizens of the U.S. don't typically live as long; our life expectancy is only 78 years. However, this is still very high. In much of the world, severe poverty cuts decades off the relatively long lives that we enjoy. For example, South Africa has one of the lowest life expectancies at only 49 years.
Health in Low-Income Nations
With a very poor economy, South Africa and other low-income nations simply don't have the resources to maintain good health. First, they don't have much food, and what they do have tends to be poor quality. The World Health Organization estimated that about 1 billion people (worldwide) were undernourished in 2010. Second, safe drinking water is as hard to come by as quality food, and bad water carries a number of infectious diseases like influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. These infectious diseases are the number one killer in poor nations. Third, people who live in poor nations have less information and are less able to access healthcare. Medical personnel are few in number, and sometimes even nonexistent. All of these factors, plus more, work together to reduce the overall health of low-income nations.
Health in High-Income Nations
These issues account for just a small percentage of deaths today in high-income countries such as the United States. 150 years ago, we also suffered from poor sanitation and infectious diseases like influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. After the Industrial Revolution, however, our economy boomed and overall health improved. Medical advances began to control diseases, and educated environmentalists campaigned against age-old practices such as discharging raw sewage into the same rivers used for drinking water.
Today, elements of industrialized nations tend to protect people from acute infections so that they may live long enough to develop the chronic diseases associated with modern life. According to the World Health Organization, heart disease, followed by cancer, tops the list of causes of death in the U.S. today. These are frequently caused by modern-life health issues that are typically seen only in high-income countries, like drug use, eating disorders due to body image, and obesity due to overeating.
Epidemiology and Social Inequality
Also, between doctor visits for minor colds, medicine for a wide variety of illnesses, cosmetic surgeries for vanity, treatment for major issues, and more, Americans spend more money on health care than the people in any other country. Yet, statistically, the United States is not the world's healthiest industrialized nation. As we'll discuss in more detail in another lesson, the lack of a national system of affordable health care is one reason for this. Another reason is that even though the U.S. is a rich nation, and health is generally good by world standards, some categories of people are better off than others.
Using social epidemiology, the study of how health and disease are distributed throughout a society's population, researchers examine the connection between health and our unequal physical and social environments. In the population of the U.S., there's a 20-year difference in the average life expectancy between the richest and poorest communities. Once again, we see a link between poverty and poor health. Poverty results in inadequate nourishment, unsanitary and poorly heated housing, lack of access to healthcare, and more. Even those who take advantage of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - also known as food stamps - can typically only afford cheap, pre-packaged foods that are fattier, higher in calories and carbs, and full of sodium, which can result in a number of health problems. The frustration of poverty may also foster self-destructive behavior such as alcoholism, smoking, and drug abuse, weakening the body's immune system and leaving a person more vulnerable to disease and infection. Poor health then limits the ability to work, forming a vicious circle.
In summary, the economy and health are inseparably linked. Low-income countries have the lowest life expectancies, because they simply don't have the resources to maintain good health. In these nations, infectious diseases are the number one killer. The population is typically undernourished, and people have less information and are less able to access healthcare. In industrialized, high-income countries, on the other hand, people are typically protected from infectious diseases and live long enough to develop chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer.
Although Americans spend more on health care than the people in any other country do, statistically, the United States is not the world's healthiest industrialized nation. Social epidemiology, which is the study of how health and disease are distributed throughout a society's population, has shown us there is a 20-year difference in average life expectancy between the richest and poorest communities. Poverty and health can form a vicious cycle: poverty results in poor health, which limits the ability to work, which in turn increases poverty.
Once you've gone through the lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the link between health and economy
- Recognize how poor health and low income often go together
- Discuss health in high-income nations
- Understand how social inequality affects healthcare