The very last sentence is a telling one in an article in The New York Times this week. In “For Americans Under 50, Stark Findings on Health,” Sabrina Tavernise notes that “…as recently as the 1950s, Americans scored better in life expectancy and disease than many of the other countries in the current study.”
The thing is, the 1950s were not all that recent. Sixty years is long enough for those in their 20’s then to have reached their 80’s now, and to have produced children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. Even those born in the 1950s have kids and grandkids.
So what happened in those 60 years that was a crucible for these downward trends? Here’s a hypothesis: What if pursuing “The American Dream” has trended downward into “The American Nightmare”?
In the last 60 years, the US has seen projects with labels like “The New Frontier” and “The War on Poverty.” Metaphors like these for good causes are meant to draw positive attention to what many would call American ideals: fighting for what we want and pushing the boundaries out to make claims to new territory. But even in the context of social betterment, labels can offer a subtext that may not be useful—here, subtexts of aggression, the loner against the group, and competition at all costs.
So one concept to study: Is it possible that these same subtexts might play a role in deaths from guns, car accidents, and drug overdoses that contribute to deaths under 50 in the US?
As a country, there also should be a willingness to consider seriously why we cling to subtexts that are not useful when others could be more significant,for instance, in manufacturing codes for healthy food; access to free or affordable higher education and career training; universal health care; affordable housing in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods; fast mass transit and city bike rentals; guaranteed vacation time and parental leave; and an emphasis on health, pleasant communities, and literacy.
The study that Tavernise cites was commissioned by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council. It showed that American men were last in life expectancy of all the 17 countries in the study. American women were next to last. What better reason to study carefully how the national narrative could be adapted to reflect what we want to happen; to look at what is already being done in other countries that we are not yet doing; to find ways to implement some of them on the local level even if not nationally?
On the level of individual households, too, during the past 60 years, television became affordable. It meant both in-home entertainment and professional mass communication delivered at the same time to everyone in a way that radio could not match. During the early years recovering from World War II and Korean War, television first became a household item, and “TV dinners” and the inauspiciously-named “snack trays” became household words. Along with instant information, television spawned couch potatoes and kids who had to be reminded to go outside and play. Do away with television? Of course not. But it has a flipside. Concomitant changes in lifestyle have to be considered at the same time as new inventions.
And take the example of processed foods manufactured from the 1950’s on that needed longer shelf-lives. They may contain ingredients that we already know can promote weight gain even though they are part and parcel of weekly food shopping. The flipside here should be factored in at the level of the manufacturer as well as the end user.
When the pursuit of the suburban lifestyle meant that more time was spent commuting to work, the second car became, if not a matter of necessity, then one of status. Two family incomes became not just an egalitarian idea, but a necessity for many as well as the means for keeping up with the Joneses. But those are also niches where fast, safe urban transit and enough maternity/paternity leave could be factored in as part of the mix.
Societal conditions and societal ills, because they cut across demographic lines, necessarily intersect wellness issues. Issues that are just background wallpaper for some, though, will be upfront and personal for others. Poverty is one of these, and it is no small issue.
An earlier study produced at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University linked social factors and mortality. It found that poverty, education that ends too early, and too little social support lie at the base of about as many US deaths as heart attacks, strokes, and lung cancer. The research demonstrated the link by analyzing studies written in English between 1980 and 2007 and finding the social factor-adult mortality relationship.
Other causes for illness may prove to be generational. Lead paint, as George Monbiot points out in his article, “The Grime Behind the Crime,” has had the chance to affect an entire generation or more. Like the additives in food, its effects can continue past its sell-by date. Studies that he quotes show a global curve upward, not just a US trajectory, but the gasoline and paint that are affected would necessarily be significant factors here. Inner city housing, older and in need of renovation, can still be home to lead paint and lead pipes even though local inspection insures that building codes must be met.
The January 13 edition of The Buffalo News carries an insightful article by Marc Buchanan, a Bloomberg News columnist. He posits several theories for crime, including the effects of heightened societal inequalities. In her article, Tavernise quotes the panel that created the study: “Something fundamental is going wrong,” said Dr. Steven Woolf, chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, who led the panel. “This is not the product of a particular administration or political party. Something at the core is causing the U.S. to slip behind these other high-income countries. And it’s getting worse.”
Buchanan notes that not only do social inequalities cause stress, but it has already been demonstrated that in those countries where there is less inequality, there are lower levels of just about everything the US has: homicide, infant mortality, lack of trust, obesity, addiction, and declining life expectancy.
What are we waiting for?
Linda Chalmer Zemel is the Buffalo Alternative Medicine Examiner for Examiner.com. She teaches media writing at SUNY Buffalo State College. Contact Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org