Why Do We Die?

Robin Hanson (hanson@econ.berkeley.edu)
Mon, 06 Jul 1998 11:26:43 -0700

Those interested in life-extension should be interested to learn that health specialists are still quite ignorant about some really big factors that cause some people to die, and others to live.

Sociologists and other social scientists have long studied some very strong correlations between social status and health, but medical science has been slow to accept that wealth causes health.

The June 3, 1998 Journal of the American Medical Association leads with a study that medical researchers consider careful enough to command their attention. An abstract is at: http://www.ama-assn.org/sci-pubs/journals/archive/jama/vol_279/no_21/oc72105a.htm

Here are the death rate ratio parameters from their model:

Age       25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65-74   75+
            1.0  2.66  3.46  9.30 16.78 40.00
Sex       Male  Female
           1.0     .41
Race      NonBlack Black
               1.0  1.19
Residence Rural Suburban City
           1.0      1.16 1.52
Education 16+yrs 12-15 0 -11
           1.0      .95   .90
Income    30K$+ 10-29K$ <10K$
            1.0   2.14   2.77
Smoking   Never  current former
            1.0     1.26   1.28
Alcohol drinks/mo.  Moderate None Heavy
                         1.0 1.13   .85
Body Mass Normal Underweight Overweight
             1.0        2.03        .94

Physical Activity Quintiles

5(high) 4 3 2 1(low)

1.0 1.46 1.60 2.25 2.91

The article and media about it have focused on the income parameters, which are indeed striking. But other parameters are also striking.

While smoking gets tons of media attention, it only raises mortality rates by ~27%. And being black is only a 19% hit. In contrast, living in a city raises mortality by 50%, relative to being rural, and being a man raises mortality by a factor of 2.5. Drinking alcohol and being overweight don't much matter, but physical activity matters for a factor of 3, as much as income does.

Robin Hanson
hanson@econ.berkeley.edu http://hanson.berkeley.edu/ RWJF Health Policy Scholar, Sch. of Public Health 510-643-1884 140 Warren Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-7360 FAX: 510-643-2627