I recently bumped into three different empirical findings that got me thinking hard about the health-and-wealth connection. Here they are:
1. The average family income of a large sample of recreational runners in a recent study (Cousineau, 2017) was found to be just under $100,000 on average. And the average age of people in that study was the early 30s.
2. In a recent study of people who adopt “an ancestral health” approach (eating paleo, doing CrossFit, etc.), the average income was, similarly, high, with over 40% of participants reporting family incomes of over $100,000 and nearly 80% of participants reporting having graduated from college (Schwartz & Stapell, 2013).
3. Income is a large and consistent predictor of longevity (how long people live) across the world - with very wealthy people in the USA, for instance, living on average 15 years long than their very-poor counterparts (Chetty et al., 2016).
If you are like me and wish to live in a world characterized by economic and social equality, you might be a little disturbed by these data. Inequality in health, after all, is perhaps the single most-concerning kind of inequality there is - as it leads to such outcomes as disease and early mortality.
Why are the Rich Healthier?
Unpacking this large-scale problem of society leads one to see this problem as multi-faceted. The three examples provided above, in fact, are the tip of the iceberg. People in impoverished areas don’t have the same insurance that others have. They don’t have the same access to all kinds of healthcare. Grocery stores that provide natural-food options are less likely to exist in inner cities that are often typified as having residents with low income, and on and on.
Health, Exercise, Paleo, and Income
So I’m kind of a weekend warrior. I run recreationally, and I will run maybe 5-10 races a year (from 5Ks to a marathon, and everything in between). I got thinking about these issues when I participated in a recent duathlon in my town (the annual Duathlon Against Cystic Fibrosis on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY - a really great event, by the way!). This race was in my town, so I know a lot of the players.
Looking around, it dawned on me that the running culture in the USA has people who share many attributes. Sure, these people are famously motivated and positive individuals. But they are also mostly white or Asian. They drive Priuses and Volvos. And they are predominantly professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, physical therapists, professors, etc). Now this is not a blanket statement - this is a comment on the modal or statistically common features of individuals in this group. On top of having all of these features, they are healthy!
You ever see a group of runners before a race - all stretching, eating bananas, and warming up? I know that there are lots of healthy kinds of people out there - but for my money, runners are among the elite when it comes to health in modern society.
The same goes for people who do CrossFit (which costs quite a bit) and folks who adopt a paleo lifestyle. These people are also often educated in some basic biology and evolutionary theory. So they are not only privileged socioeconomically, but they are also privileged in terms of education. And, of course, education is another facet of our society that famously tracks wealth.
I write quite a bit about health - with health being one of the most foundational aspects of what it means to live the good life. In doing research in this area, more and more, I am finding data from all kinds of sources that essentially paints a disturbing sociological picture when it comes to health. The right to live a healthy life is not afforded equally across the board to everyone - not in my country. The opportunity to live a healthy life is a privilege of the elite.
Want to change the world for the better? This might be a good place to start. I’d write more, but I’m going out for a run - because, luckily, I can afford to do so.
Chetty R, Stepner M, Abraham S, et al. The association between income and life expectancy in the United States, 2001-2014. JAMA. 2016;315(16):1750-1766.
Cousineau, K. C. (2017). Why do you run? Master’s thesis submitted in partial completion of the master’s degree in psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
Schwartz, D. B., & Stapell, H. M. (2013). Modern caveman? Stereotpyes and Reality of the Ancestral Health Movement. Journal of Evolution and Health.