Just how does inequality translate into unhealthy outcomes? Growing numbers of researchers see stress as the culprit. The more inequality in a society, the more stress. Chronic stress, over time, wears down our immune systems and leaves us more vulnerable to disease.
This same stress drives people to seek relief in unhealthy habits. They may do drugs or smoke — or eat more “comfort foods” packed with sugar and fat.
Can the United States change course on health?
Japan offers an encouraging precedent. Sixty years ago, Japan ranked as a deeply unequal and unhealthy nation. But, since the 1950s, Japan has become one of the world’s most equal places and, on life expectancy, now ranks number one globally.
The United States, over the same span of time, has gone in the exact opposite direction. We have become the world’s most unequal major nation, with health outcomes among the developed world’s worst.
How can we turn this around? Most Americans, Stephen Bezruchka notes, already understand the concept of “vital signs.” We feel their importance “every time we step on a scale at the doctor’s office or feel a blood pressure cuff tighten.”
But societies have “vital signs,” too, with none more important than our level of inequality. If we start recognizing these vital signs — and acting on them — we’ll stop dying so much younger than we should.