Archives for health



Is It Unethical to Not Hire Smokers?

That is the question asked in a New England Journal of Medicine column by Harald Schmidt, Kristin Voigt, and Ezekiel J. Emanuel:

Finding employment is becoming increasingly difficult for smokers. Twenty-nine U.S. states have passed legislation prohibiting employers from refusing to hire job candidates because they smoke, but 21 states have no such restrictions. Many health care organizations, such as the Cleveland Clinic and Baylor Health Care System, and some large non–health care employers, including Scotts Miracle-Gro, Union Pacific Railroad, and Alaska Airlines, now have a policy of not hiring smokers — a practice opposed by 65% of Americans, according to a 2012 poll by Harris International.

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Surprising New Findings on Obesity

One of the first Freakonomics Radio podcasts we made was an episode about the (surprisingly tenuous) link between obesity and health problems. A new study in The Journal of the American Medical Association finds that “Grade 1 obesity overall was not associated with higher mortality, and overweight was associated with significantly lower all-cause mortality.”  Writing for The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz explains:

Compared to people with a normal weight (a BMI less than 25), the overweight (BMI between 25 to 30) had a 6 percent lower mortality rate—and both groups had a rate about 15 percent lower than the obese, especially the very obese (BMI above 35).

The explanation for the finding is uncertain. Perhaps the pleasantly plump but not obese have an extra reserve—a literal spare tire—that confers a survival advantage should they become seriously ill, whereas the lean-iacs do not. Or maybe the thin ones were thin because of a serious illness that, in the course the various studies, killed them. Or maybe the thin ones were thin because they were chain smokers living off Scotch and potato chips. Or just maybe the occasional pig-out does soothe the soul and make for a happier, healthier individual.

(HT: Andrew Sullivan)



How to Live Longer: a New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “How to Live Longer.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player in the post, or read the transcript below.)

It looks into why Hall of Fame inductees, Oscar winners, and Nobel laureates seem to outlive their peers. The deeper question in the podcast concerns the relationship between status (not income!) and longevity — a fascinating, complex, and controversial topic (here’s a good place to start reading) about which I believe we’ll hear a great deal in years to come. It will be valuable to know what kind of “status boosts” confer health advantages and, conversely, how disappointment and the like can chip away at us.

This podcast was timed to coincide with two events this week: the annual Baseball Hall of Fame election, in which no players were selected this year for the first time since 1996 (here’s ESPN’s take and here’s a useful statistical snapshot); and the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees. Read More »



The Benefits of the Safety Net

A new working paper (abstractPDF) by Hilary W. Hoynes, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Douglas Almond examines the effects of in utero and childhood access to the social safety net, specifically food stamps:

A growing economics literature establishes a causal link between in utero shocks and health and human capital in adulthood. Most studies rely on extreme negative shocks such as famine and pandemics. We are the first to examine the impact of a positive and policy-driven change in economic resources available in utero and during childhood. In particular, we focus on the introduction of a key element of the U.S. safety net, the Food Stamp Program, which was rolled out across counties in the U.S. between 1961 and 1975. We use the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to assemble unique data linking family background and county of residence in early childhood to adult health and economic outcomes.

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You Really Are What You Eat

In a new working paper (PDF; abstract), economists David G. Blanchflower, Andrew J. Oswald, and Sarah Stewart-Brown argue that you actually are what you eat:

Humans run on a fuel called food.  Yet economists and other social scientists rarely study what people eat.  We provide simple evidence consistent with the existence of a link between the consumption of fruit and vegetables and high well-being.  In cross-sectional data, happiness and mental health rise in an approximately dose-response way with the number of daily portions of fruit and vegetables. The pattern is remarkably robust to adjustment for a large number of other demographic, social and economic variables.  Well-being peaks at approximately 7 portions per day.  We document this relationship in three data sets, covering approximately 80,000 randomly selected British individuals, and for seven measures of well-being (life satisfaction, WEMWBS mental well-being, GHQ mental disorders, self-reported health, happiness, nervousness, and feeling low).

One major note: the researchers caution that reverse causality may be an issue. That is, rather than fruit and vegetables causing well-being, it may be that well-adjusted people prefer eating a lot of fruit and vegetables. The authors recommend additional “randomized trials to explore the consequences for mental health of different levels of fruit-and-vegetable consumption.”



Long Commutes: Bad for the Heart

A new study finds that, in addition to being a real downer, long commutes are related to bad health. Conducted by Christine Hoehner, Carolyn E. Barlow, Peg Allen, and Mario Schootman, the study found that long commutes are correlated with higher blood pressure and bigger waistlines.  “This is the first study to show that people who commute long distances to work were less fit, weighed more, were less physically active and had higher blood pressure,” said Hoehner. “All those are strong predictors of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.” Read More »



Retirement Kills: a New Marketplace Podcast

Are you bummed out that you might have to postpone retirement for financial reasons?

Well, there may be a silver lining: it looks like retirement may be bad for your health. That’s the topic of our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, “Retirement Kills.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

The Great Recession has put a lot of retirement plans on hold, often at the behest of governments who can’t afford to pay pensions. Germany, the U.K., and France have all upped their retirement ages.  And the U.S. is seeing a lot more older workers as well. Lisa Boily of the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that people 55 and older are expected to represent 25 percent of the labor force by 2020.

Part of this is simple demographics — the graying of the baby boom — but Americans are also working longer. Read More »



Early Retirement: Bad For Your Health?

Retirement ages have been trending up, as governments struggle to deal with escalating financial burdens. That might be sad news for would-be retirees — but maybe they’ll change their mind if they look at this new research from Andreas Kuhn, Jean-Philippe Wuellrich, and Josef Zweimüller. They examine the effects of early retirement on a sample of Austrian blue-collar workers:

We find that a reduction in the retirement age causes a significant increase in the risk of premature death – defined as death before age 67 – for males but not for females. The effect for males is not only statistically significant but also quantitatively important. According to our estimates, one additional year of early retirement causes an increase in the risk of premature death of 2.4 percentage points (a relative increase of about 13.4%; or 1.8 months in terms of years of life lost). In line with expectations, we find that IV estimates are considerably smaller than the simple OLS estimates, both for men and for women. This is consistent with negative health selection into retirement and underlines the importance of a proper identification strategy when estimating the causal impact of early retirement on mortality. Our results also indicate that the causal effect of early retirement on mortality for females is zero, suggesting that the negative association between retirement age and mortality in the raw data is entirely due to negative health selection. There are several reasons why male but not female blue-collar workers suffer from higher mortality (eg women may be more health-conscious and adopt less unhealthy behaviours than men; they may be more active after permanently exiting the labour market due to their higher involvement in household activities).

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