3 Things Economics Can’t Solve

Question: What is the relationship between economic growth and life expectancy?

Kate Pickett: What we find is, in the rich developed market democracies, there’s no longer any relationship between average levels of income in a country and life expectancy. So, you can have a country like the USA, or Norway, that’s twice a rich as another country like Greece for instance, and that doesn’t seem to affect life expectancy at all. And the same is true of happiness. Happiness isn’t related to average levels of income in a country either. Now, that’s not true of the developing world when you don’t have enough, when people are lacking food or shelter, or the basic material necessities. Then economic growth is really important. But in our rich, developed democracies, it no longer makes any difference. So, we seem to have come to an end of what economic growth can do for us in terms of life expectancy, happiness, well-being and that sort of thing.

If you look at the United States, over the past few decades, you’ve become twice, three times a rich as you used to be, levels of happiness haven’t improved at all.

Question: How does social inequality affect our health?

Kate Pickett: I think this is where it helps that Richard Wilkinson, my co-author and I, we’re epidemiologists, and so we study levels of population health. And one thing we really learned over the past 30 years in epidemiology is the importance of psycho-social factors for health. Things like low social status, or social affiliation, social networks, whether or not you have friends, and the stresses of early childhood. All of those things have turned out to be really important for health. And we have quite a good understanding now of the biology of chronic stress. So, all of these things are working as stresses, low social status, lack of friends or social networks, stress in early childhood. And chronic stress affects our biology, our physiology in lots of different ways. It affects our immune system, our hormonal responses, it affects our cardiovascular health. And that’s quite well understood. And so we have also known for a long time that the people at the bottom of society, the poorer people in our societies, people living in the most deprived neighborhoods have much higher levels of stress and much worse health than those who are more affluent or have higher social status.

Question: Is there a threshold for when economic growth stops affecting life expectancy?

Kate Pickett: Yeah, it’s not so much about the threshold, the threshold changes over time. It’s really just seeing that although life expectancy continues to improve over time, that’s not related to average levels of income anymore in the rich countries. Instead, what we find is really important is the level of income and equality that is the gap between the rich and the poor. That’s what seems to matter these days for our health and social well being.

An epidemiologist explains the evidence that life expectancy, happiness, and well-being do not increase with income and national wealth.

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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The Flynn effect appears to be in retrograde. (Credit: Shutterstock/Big Think)
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