The best way to improve Americans’ life expectancy isn’t some fad diet. It’s to reduce inequality.
By Keith Payne
You’ve heard, no doubt, of the miraculous Mediterranean diet, which is said to keep Italians and Greeks living healthy lives into their 80s and beyond. The Japanese diet is popular, too, as the Japanese live the longest lives in the world.
Countless studies have tried to identify the critical ingredients in these diets. Should we eat grilled squid like the Greeks? Or more lingonberries like the Swedes?
The French live some of the longest lives on earth. The oldest known person was Jeanne Calment, a French woman who lived to 122 (and a half). And yet the French diet has become known as “the French paradox,” because it’s suspiciously high in saturated fat.
The diet-focused answer? The red wine must protect them! Mediterranean-healthy-diet-longevity
One reason that people leap from longevity to diet is a mental quirk known as the “you are what you eat” fallacy. Psychologists have found that people assume that the properties of food are transferred to those who eat it. In some parts of Asia, for example, tiger penises are eaten to increase men’s virility.
Medical evidence suggests that differences in lifespans across countries are better explained by social conditions than diet. Researchers have found that among economically developed countries, income inequality is a major predictor of longevity.
In fact, the most equal nations are Japan, Sweden, and Norway, which also have the longest life spans. Not far behind are Mediterranean nations including Spain, Greece, and Italy.
If social equality is really the active ingredient keeping people healthy in these countries, then other mysteries start to make sense. Germany and Canada have low inequality and accordingly, long lives. France is no longer a paradox: Their low inequality explains their longevity. The Bordeaux might have nothing to do with it.
At the bottom of the longevity list are high-inequality counties like the United States. Despite being among the wealthiest countries on earth, American life expectancy lags behind those of poorer, but more equal, countries like Ireland and Greece. The biggest health advances of the 20th century — antibiotics, sanitation, vaccines — were biological. The biggest public health insights of this century, in contrast, are social. Societies that allow extreme inequality to shred the social fabric pay the price in illness, unhappiness, and mortality.
American life expectancy decreased last year for the first time in decades. The best way to reverse that decline isn’t diet plans, but economic policies that reduce inequality. Fresh fish and olive oil are nearly miraculous gifts. But if you want to live longer, my bet is on a living wage and affordable health care.