By Jennifer Karas Montez, Jason Beckfield, Julene Kemp Cooney, Jacob M. Grumbach, Mark D. Hayward, Huseyin Zeyd Koytak, Steven H. Woolf, Anna Zajacova
The Milbank Quarterly, August 4, 2020
- Changes in US state policies since the 1970s, particularly after 2010, have played an important role in the stagnation and recent decline in US life expectancy.
- Some US state policies appear to be key levers for improving life expectancy, such as policies on tobacco, labor, immigration, civil rights, and the environment.
- US life expectancy is estimated to be 2.8 years longer among women and 2.1 years longer among men if all US states enjoyed the health advantages of states with more liberal policies, which would put US life expectancy on par with other high‐income countries.
Context: Life expectancy in the United States has increased little in previous decades, declined in recent years, and become more unequal across US states. Those trends were accompanied by substantial changes in the US policy environment, particularly at the state level. State policies affect nearly every aspect of people’s lives, including economic well‐being, social relationships, education, housing, lifestyles, and access to medical care. This study examines the extent to which the state policy environment may have contributed to the troubling trends in US life expectancy.
Methods: We merged annual data on life expectancy for US states from 1970 to 2014 with annual data on 18 state‐level policy domains such as tobacco, environment, tax, and labor. Using the 45 years of data and controlling for differences in the characteristics of states and their populations, we modeled the association between state policies and life expectancy, and assessed how changes in those policies may have contributed to trends in US life expectancy from 1970 through 2014.
Findings: Results show that changes in life expectancy during 1970‐2014 were associated with changes in state policies on a conservative‐liberal continuum, where more liberal policies expand economic regulations and protect marginalized groups. States that implemented more conservative policies were more likely to experience a reduction in life expectancy. We estimated that the shallow upward trend in US life expectancy from 2010 to 2014 would have been 25% steeper for women and 13% steeper for men had state policies not changed as they did. We also estimated that US life expectancy would be 2.8 years longer among women and 2.1 years longer among men if all states enjoyed the health advantages of states with more liberal policies.
Conclusions: Understanding and reversing the troubling trends and growing inequalities in US life expectancy requires attention to US state policy contexts, their dynamic changes in recent decades, and the forces behind those changes. Changes in US political and policy contexts since the 1970s may undergird the deterioration of Americans’ health and longevity.
From the Discussion
The changing policy contexts of US states since the 1970s may have played a sizable role in shaping US life expectancy. Indeed, this study’s findings are consistent with the proposition that changes in state policy contexts have contributed to the growing gap in life expectancy across states since 1980 and suppressed overall gains in US life expectancy. This is particularly striking during the last five years of our study period (2010‐2014), in which we estimated that the shallow upward trend in US life expectancy would have been 25% steeper for women and 13% steeper for men had state policies not changed as they did.
The causal mechanisms linking state policies to life expectancy are complex. For example, environmental laws can shape exposure to toxic substances that damage respiratory and cardiovascular function, affect gene expression, disrupt endocrine function, and increase the risk of death. Civil rights laws may help protect individuals from the pernicious mental and physical health effects of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. Living in a US state with weak protections for lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations may elevate rates of generalized anxiety disorder, post‐traumatic stress disorder, and dysthymia among these populations. Labor policies such as higher minimum wage and paid family leave can improve economic well‐being, health behaviors, birth outcomes, and access to prenatal care, and can decrease mortality rates. Tobacco control policies, such as higher excise taxes and indoor smoking bans, have reduced the prevalence of smoking. Restrictive abortion policies have been linked with women’s poverty, reduced employment, anxiety, poor physical health, and violence from the man involved in the pregnancy. And finally, access to firearms in the home is associated with greater risks of gun‐related homicide (particularly for female victims, thought to reflect partner victimization) and suicide. Collectively, these studies indicate that the mechanisms are numerous and complex and shape nearly all aspects of people’s lives.
From the Policy Implications
Although the importance of any specific domain in our study should be interpreted cautiously, the overarching conclusion is clear: states that have invested in their populations’ social and economic well‐being by enacting more liberal policies over time tend to be the same states that have made considerable gains in life expectancy.
Americans’ opportunities and constraints for living a healthy life are strongly shaped by structural conditions. Other factors such as individual behaviors and medical care are also important and must be part of a comprehensive strategy to improve population health and reduce inequalities; nevertheless, as McCartney and colleagues argued, “there should be no pretense or illusion that health inequalities can be eliminated, or even meaningfully reduced, without a primary focus on structural factors.” This study focused on US state policy contexts as an increasingly important structural factor. Our findings underscore that progress in understanding—and reversing—the troubling trends and growing disparities in US life expectancy requires attention to state policy contexts, their dynamic changes in recent decades, and the forces behind those changes.
The full article, well worth reading, is open access:
By Don McCanne, M.D.
This meticulously researched study demonstrates that “states that have invested in their populations’ social and economic well‐being by enacting more liberal policies over time tend to be the same states that have made considerable gains in life expectancy.”
Policy matters. Those states that get policy right contribute to the health of their populations. Those states that are successful in enacting and implementing beneficial liberal policies that are health-enhancing are those states that get their politics right.
If the policies aren’t right and the politics are a barrier, then change the politics so that you can fix the policies. Simple.
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