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Economic Inequality Drives Growing Disparity in US Lifespans

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This NY Times article describes a new and disturbing study which found a growing disparity between the lifespans of rich people and poor people in the US. Here are a couple of the highlights (or lowlights):


In the early 1970s, a 60-year-old man in the top half of the earnings ladder could expect to live 1.2 years longer than a man of the same age in the bottom half, according to an analysis by the Social Security Administration. Fast-forward to 2001, and he could expect to live 5.8 years longer than his poorer counterpart.


New research released on Friday contains even more jarring numbers. Looking at the extreme ends of the income spectrum, economists at the Brookings Institution found that for men born in 1920, there was a six-year difference in life expectancy between the top 10 percent of earners and the bottom 10 percent. For men born in 1950, that difference had more than doubled, to 14 years.
For women, the gap grew to 13 years, from 4.7 years.
Overall, according to the Brookings study, life expectancy for the bottom 10 percent of wage earners improved by just 3 percent for men born in 1950 compared with those born in 1920. For the top 10 percent, though, it jumped by about 28 percent. (The researchers used a common measure — life expectancy at age 50, and included data from 1984 to 2012.)
Here is the graph of life expectancy of 50 year-olds with different incomes has changed over the last 40 years:
The data for poor women is particularly shocking - look how expected lifespan of the poorest women at age 50 has been declining steadily since the 1970s, while its been rising for the riches women. 
The researchers attribute some of the discrepancy to different rates of smoking and obesity between the rich and the poor. They say it is unclear how much of the disparity is attributable to the difference in access to cutting-edge healthcare between the rich and the poor, and therefore whether the Affordable Care Act with do much to close the widening gap.
Overall it makes me doubt Aubrey de Grey's optimistic prediction that economic inequality won't hamper everyone benefiting from true life extension therapies when they become available, because he says it will be in everyone's interest to make it available to all. Aubrey says the longevity dividend will be so great that it would be "economic suicide" for a country not to make these technologies available to everyone for free. Here are Aubrey's exact words from the transcript (pdf) of the recent Intelligence2 debate on the topic "Are Lifespans Long Enough?" which we're discussing in this thread:
In other words, the absence of these therapies is expensive. 90 percent or thereabouts of the medical budget of the Western world, including medical research but also medical budget, is spent on the ill health of old age in one way or another, not to mention of course all of the indirect costs, the fact that people are not contributing wealth to society anymore because they're no longer able bodied, the fact that their kids are not so productive because they're having to look after their sick parents, all those things add up to the fact that it would be economically suicidal for any country, even a tax averse country like the U.S.A., not to make sure that these therapies are available to everybody who is old enough to need them. It's going to be like basic education. It's going to be free.
I think Aubrey is being a bit hyperbolic here, and exaggerating the degree to which people of the US will support large-scale redistributions of wealth (or expensive treatment), regardless of how rational such a policy might be or seem...
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  • 5 months later...

Here is an interesting op-ed from today's New York Times: "When Blood Pressure Is Political"


The big takeaway is the shift from thinking of the individual's body as trying to maintain homeostasis to incorporating larger social forces which individual bodies have natural responses. Thinking in terms of allostasis allows us to see racism and poverty as contributing factors to hypertension, not just genetics or lifestyle.




Hypertension disproportionately affects blacks, especially in poor communities. This may in part be because of genetics, but it is doubtful that this is a major factor; American blacks have hypertension at much higher rates than West Africans. Moreover, hypertension is also common in other segments of society in which poverty and social ills are rampant.
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