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Life Expectancy in China Rising Slowly, Despite Economic Surge

David Leonhardt, New York Times
… when measured on one of most important yardsticks of all, China does not look so impressive.

From 1990 to 2008, life expectancy in China rose 5.1 years, to 73.1, according to a World Bank compilation of United Nations data. Nearly every other big developing country, be it Brazil, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia or Iran, had a bigger increase over that span, despite much slower economic growth. Since 2000, most of Western Europe, Australia and Israel, all of which started with higher life expectancy, have also outpaced China.

The moral? Economic growth makes almost any societal problem easier to solve, but growth doesn’t guarantee better lives — or better health — for everyone. That’s been true for centuries. The rate of growth and the kind of growth both matter.
(23 November 2010)

Private Insurance Induced Stress Disorder (PIISD)

Russell Mokhiber, Common Dreams
Pissed off?

Maybe it’s your insurance company.

A Maryland psychiatrist thinks it might be.

Writing in the current issue of Psychiatric Times, Dr. Carol Paris lays out the diagnostic criteria for something she calls Private Insurance Induced Stress Disorder (PIISD).

“Mental illness can sometimes be triggered by abnormalities of brain chemistry,” Dr. Paris said. “But in this case it’s triggered by outside forces – in particular, large corporations.”

Dr. Paris lays out four criteria for diagnosing PIISD.

Criteria A: The person has been exposed to a traumatic insurance-induced event in which both of the following have been present:

* The person has experienced a health insurance traumatic event, due either to lack of access to health insurance, or due to failure of their health insurance to meet their health care needs.
* The person’s traumatic response involved intense fear, helplessness, anger, and confusion and was caused by financial considerations that seriously complicate their (or their patient’s) medical treatment and recovery.
(24 November 2010)

Grateful People Are Happier, Healthier Long After the Leftovers Are Gobbled Up

Melinda Beck, Wall Street Journal
… A growing body of research suggests that maintaining an attitude of gratitude can improve psychological, emotional and physical well-being.

Adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not, according to studies conducted over the past decade. They’re also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections.

…The research is part of the “positive psychology” movement, which focuses on developing strengths rather than alleviating disorders. Cultivating gratitude is also a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which holds that changing peoples’ thought patterns can dramatically affect their moods.

… In an upcoming paper in the Journal of Happiness Studies, Dr. Froh and colleagues surveyed 1,035 high-school students and found that the most grateful had more friends and higher GPAs, while the most materialistic had lower grades, higher levels of envy and less satisfaction with life. “One of the best cures for materialism is to make somebody grateful for what they have,” says Dr. Froh.

… As simple as it sounds, gratitude is actually a demanding, complex emotion that requires “self-reflection, the ability to admit that one is dependent upon the help of others, and the humility to realize one’s own limitations,” Dr. Emmons says.

Being grateful also forces people to overcome what psychologists call the “negativity bias”—the innate tendency to dwell on problems, annoyances and injustices rather than upbeat events. Focusing on blessings can help ward off depression and build resilience in times of stress, grief or disasters, according to studies of people impacted by the Sept. 11 terror attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
(23 November 2010)
It sounds goody-goody, but it really does make a difference. -BA

Social ties are good for your health

Cecile Andrews, Stanford Report
We may all know that relationships with friends and family add immensely to the quality of life. But did you also know that such social ties can help us live longer? BeWell talks to Cecile Andrews, author and an affiliated scholar with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, to explain why it is healthy to forge connections to others.

1) Being connected to others is nice, but is it important?

In our crazy society, social ties are pretty far down on our “to do” lists, but connection to others is turning out to be more important than we thought. Studies indicate that “social capital” is one of the biggest predictors for health, happiness, and longevity. The problem: we often do not recognize the importance of social connection. Our culture values hard work, success, and wealth, so it’s no surprise some of us do not set aside enough time for social ties when we think security lies in material things rather than other people.

Olds and Schwartz (Associate Clinical Professors of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School) argue in The Lonely American that loneliness is often mistaken for depression. Instead of connecting with others, we consume a pill. Being lonely is outside of our individualistic world view so we don’t even see it as a problem.

Harvard’s Robert Putnam writes about social capital in his book, Bowling Alone, and shows how social ties are not only important for personal well-being, but also for our democracy. To paraphrase Putnam, “the culture in which people talk to each other over the back fence is the culture in which people vote.” Apparently, when you feel part of a group, you’re more likely to contribute to it — such as by voting.

UC Berkeley’s George Lakoff has said that we can only bring about progressive social change by evoking empathy. You can’t get people to change by loading them up with facts or shaking your finger at them. You must talk to others with respect and caring —and then you connect. Social capital is thus central to progressive social change.

Social capital is important for the planet as well. Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben says that we won’t have sustainability without community. Until we see other people as our main source of security, we’ll keep turning to things, using up oil and other resources and heating and polluting the planet. Until we have community in our neighborhoods, we’ll keep going to the mall for our evening’s entertainment.

2) Does research show convincingly that social ties really improve health?

Yes, and there are many studies, but it is difficult to determine the quality of the research unless you examine it closely. Some studies focus on short-term health benefits such as reduced incidence of colds and flu. Other research looks at longevity, alleging that the number of friends correlates with longer life. Still other studies have found that people have better survival rates for diseases when they have social support. Not long ago I heard a cardiologist compare social isolation to smoking, saying that loneliness is the new tobacco.

One of my favorite books is The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, by Robert E. Lane, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale. His book brings together much of the research done on social capital over the last several years and shows how social ties not only affect our personal health, but also our societal health. He observes that as prosperity in a society increases, social solidarity decreases. Happiness not only declines, people become more distrustful of each other as well as their political institutions. Lane argues that we must alter our priorities; we must increase our levels of companionship even at the risk of reducing our income.

I’ve often wondered why we require so many studies to prove that we need each other and that it is important to care for each other. I would simply call it wisdom.

3) What if I am not “connected”? Are there simple ways to start building relationships?

Putnam says that if you don’t belong to a group and you join one now, you’ll cut your chance of dying in half for the next year. (You probably don’t have a big chance of dying anyway, but I kind of like this study because it gets people’s attention.) If you join a group, do more than just send in your dues. Come together face to face, such as by volunteering for committees or agreeing to work on projects. By the same token, organizations shouldn’t just hold dull meetings; they need to have parties and potlucks as well as conduct business in an interesting manner.

You also have to talk to people. Introduce yourself, ask questions, tell stories, be interested! I heard a startling recommendation: if you want to find a romantic partner, you should talk to five new people a day!
(24 November 2010)