Archives for health



Why You Should Bribe Your Kids: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

This week’s episode is called “Why You Should Bribe Your Kids.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

Let’s say you’re trying to get a bunch of kids to eat more nutritious food. What’s the best way to do this — education, moral urging, or plain old bribery? That’s one of the questions that a pair of economists set out to answer in a recent field experiment in Chicago. In this podcast, you’ll hear from both of them: John List, a University of Chicago professor (and co-author of The Why Axis who’s familiar to readers of this blog); and Anya Samek, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Read More »



A Simple Invention to Help Women’s Health

BBC News reports the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a school dropout in rural India who invented a technology that could vastly improve reproductive health for women. The user-friendly technology relies on simple machines to produce sanitary pads at a low cost, a boon for women unwilling or unable to pay for the higher-priced sanitary pads in stores.

[Muruganantham] discovered that hardly any women in the surrounding villages used sanitary pads – fewer than one in 10. His findings were echoed by a 2011 survey by AC Nielsen, commissioned by the Indian government, which found that only 12% of women across India use sanitary pads.

Muruganantham says that in rural areas, the take-up is far less than that. He was shocked to learn that women don’t just use old rags, but other unhygienic substances such as sand, sawdust, leaves and even ash.

Women who do use cloths are often too embarrassed to dry them in the sun, which means they don’t get disinfected. Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene – it can also affect maternal mortality.

Read More »



Does Breastfeeding Reduce Childhood Disability?

A new (gated) NBER paper looks at the relationship between breastfeeding and childhood disability.  The author, George Wehby, finds that a longer duration of breastfeeding is associated with a slightly lower risk of child disability:

Little is known about whether breastfeeding may prevent disabilities throughout childhood. We evaluate the effects of breastfeeding on child disability using data from the National Survey of Family Growth merged to the National Health Interview Survey for a large nationally representative sample of children aged 1 to 18 years from the U.S. including over 3,000 siblings who are discordant on breastfeeding status/duration. We focus on a mother fixed effect model that compares siblings in order to account for family-level unobservable confounders and employ multiple specifications including a dynamic model that accounts for disability status of the prior child. Breastfeeding the child for a longer duration is associated with a lower risk of child disability, by about 0.2 percentage-points per month of breastfeeding. This effect is only observed on the intensive margin among breastfed children, as any breastfeeding has no effect on the extensive margin. We conclude that very short breastfeeding durations are unlikely to have an effect on reducing disability risk.



Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest podcast is called “Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?” (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) We produced the episode in response to a question from a listener named Doug Ahmann, who wrote in to say:   

I’m very curious how it came to be that teaching students a foreign language has reached the status it has in the U.S. … My oldest daughter is a college freshman, and not only have I paid for her to study Spanish for the last four or more years — they even do it in grade school now! — but her college is requiring her to study EVEN MORE! 

What on earth is going on? How did it ever get this far?

In a day and age where schools at every level are complaining about limited resources, why on earth do we continue to force these kids to study a foreign language that few will ever use, and virtually all do not retain?

Or to put it in economics terms, where is the ROI? 

Great question, Doug! We do our best to provide some answers. Read More »



College Makes You Healthy

At the core of the debate over the value of college is a collage of evidence showing that it produces better lifetime outcomes not just in income but in health and happiness. How does this happen? And how can we be sure that we aren’t just seeing a selection bias — i.e., that people who go to college would have been richer, healthier, and happier in any case?

Here’s a new working paper (abstract; PDF), by Kasey Buckles, Andreas Hagemann, Ofer Malamud, Melinda Morrill, and Abigail Wozniak which purports to show the long-term health effects of a college education. Granted, their data stretches back to the Vietnam War draft (a good instrumental variable, which other researchers have used) but their findings are significant nonetheless.

We exploit exogenous variation in college completion induced by draft-avoidance behavior during the Vietnam War to examine the impact of college completion on adult mortality.  Our preferred estimates imply that increasing college completion rates from the level of the state with the lowest induced rate to the highest would decrease
cumulative mortality by 28 percent relative to the mean.  Most of the reduction in mortality is from deaths due to cancer and heart disease.  We also explore potential mechanisms, including differential earnings, health insurance, and health behaviors, using data from the Census, ACS, and NHIS.

Differential earnings and health insurance are of course related to the income boost that college graduates receive. It is the “health behaviors” that are learned/adopted by college graduates that are especially interesting.



Do You Really Want to Know Your Future? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest podcast is called “Do You Really Want to Know Your Future?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player in the post. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) 

If you could take a test that would foretell your future – at least your medical future – would you? And if you did, how would that affect the way you live your life?

The economist Emily Oster wondered how people at risk for the neurological disease Huntington’s answer those questions. Huntington’s is genetic: the children of a person with the disease have a 50 percent chance of carrying the mutation themselves. Symptoms usually surface in one’s 30s or 40s, worsen over time, and end in death. Oster wanted to know how people with the gene respond to the prospect of a shortened lifespan. Read More »



Beer for Babies and the Tapeworm Diet

In our podcast “100 Ways to Fight Obesity,” Steve Levitt and David Laibson discuss the possibility of using tapeworms to fight weight gain. (Seriously.) That prompted a reader named Scott Genevish to send us a real-seeming (?) old advertisement for “Sanitized Tapeworms, Jar Packed” (below). It was accompanied by a bunch of other old ads that are all, from the perspective of 2013, radically outdated for one reason or another. I have no idea if all the ads are real; I’m sure most of them have made the online rounds before. Still, it might be worth a look — especially when you think about how the line between repugnant and not repugnant can shift over time, sometimes faster and more dramatically than you’d ever predict. Read More »



Who Steals Healthcare Insurance?

What happens when a firm starts a “dependent verification” program designed to make sure that its employees are carrying only legitimate dependents on their health insurance? The economists Michael Geruso and Harvey Rosen ask that question in a new working paper called “Fraud in the Workplace? Evidence from a Dependent Verification Program” (abstract; PDF). A few key sections are bolded below:

In recent years many employers, both in the private and public sectors, have implemented dependent verification (DV) programs, which aim to reduce employee benefits costs by ensuring that ineligible persons are not enrolled in their health plan as dependents. However, little is known about their efficacy. In this paper, we evaluate a DV program using a panel of health plan enrollment data from a large, single-site employer who implemented it several years ago. We find that relative to all other years, dependents were 2.7 percentage points less likely to be reenrolled in the year that DV was introduced, indicating that this fraction of dependents was ineligibly enrolled prior to the program’s introduction. These disenrollment effects were especially large for same-sex partners and older children. We show that the program did not induce employees to leave the employer’s plan and (say) put themselves and their dependents on the spouse’s plan. We also show that disenrollment occurred because dependents were actually ineligible, not because of compliance costs that might be associated with providing documentation. The DV program saved about $46 per enrolled employee. A considerable fraction of these cost savings came from removing older children who didn’t meet additional criteria. Therefore, the dependent coverage provision of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which essentially renders all children up to age 26 eligible in all employer health plans, will substantially limit the future cost saving potential of such programs. Hence, as the state governments and private employers that have implemented DV programs adapt to the new regulatory environment, the popularity of dependent verification programs may well diminish.

The next time you’re counting up all the reasons why employer-based healthcare insurance is a bad idea, you can include this one, too.