Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Life Expectancy Declines and Peak Oil Stress?

Kevin Drum draws our attention to the map above, which shows counties in which women's life expectancies actually fell between 1997 and 2007 (this is not supposed to happen in developing countries). The map comes from this LA Times story, which quote researchers as follows:
"There are just lots of places where things are getting worse," said Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which conducted the research. "We're not keeping up."

The backsliding for women began before 1997, but researchers found it had accelerated in the last decade. Only 227 counties saw women's life expectancy decline between 1987 and 1997, according to the study.

The grim trend is fueled largely by smoking, high blood pressure and obesity, according to Murray and other population health experts.
However, I was immediately reminded of this "peak oil stress map" that I made a year ago.  It was based on looking at the ratio of median income to average commute time, on the theory that places were people had to drive a lot but had little income would be worst placed to deal with expensive gasoline.  The red areas are where you expect the worst problems, and the blue areas are where you'd expect people to be more resilient:

Stare at the two maps together for a while.  The agreement is really quite good:

Of course, this is one of those complex multifactorial situations that really call for a heavy duty statistical analysis.  I'm not about to attempt that in a quick blog post. So let me just say this is an intriguing hypothesis.  The idea that financial stress due to high gas prices and loss of income is causing actual declines in health status seems at least plausible, since it's well established that chronic emotional stress contributes to obesity and cardiovascular disease.


TiradeFaction said...

I remember reading earlier that life expectancies are going down in the US, I think it also has a lot to do with the lack of availability of proper (or any) health care, amongst other factors such as declining wages and significant reductions in educational funding & access.

Frugal said...

The afflicted counties with decreased life expectancies appear to be mostly rural. Having lived in both rural and urban areas in Canada, I can attest to substantial cultural differences.

For some reason, rural inhabitants smoke more, excercise less, and eat worse food. Also, rural recreational activities are often motorized, such as zooming around on dirt bikes, snowmobiles, power boats, etc.

Urban inhabitants are more likely to go hiking, cycling, or backcountry skiing. There must be reason for this discrepancy, education levels maybe?

Simon Tegg said...

Well spotted Stuart,

However, I don't think its necessarily oil price stress. A simpler explanation is that poor people have bad diet, and people who have long commutes spend a lot of sitting down.

dr2chase said...

@Frugal, @Simon -- yes, but what has changed in 20 years? They're not just failing to improve at the same rate as the rest of the country (never mind other countries), they are declining in absolute terms. They were rural then, they're rural now.

Perhaps their incomes are declining; perhaps they are experiencing medical price stress; perhaps changes in safety-net programs have had an actual effect on people who need they safety-net, and in rural areas (unlike urban) there's nothing else to rely on.

buck smith said...

A likely cause of a correlation between high oil and lower life expectancy is people driving smaller cars which are less safe.

Burk said...

I might point you to another correlation that I think matches and explains at least as well, which is Robert Putnam's estimate of social capital from his book bowling alone. The map figure is reproduced here as figure 6 (pdf). High gas usage would also correlate with low social capital, but in any case, I think social capital has closer direct connections with health.

Stuart Staniford said...


This is sort of what I meant about the multifactorial nature of the problem. Eg. maybe high commute times help explain low social capital.

Nick G said...

I'd say the simplest explanation is that income is continuing to move to the highest quintile of income earners. Income distribution is becoming less and less even.

I'd say your old map (commute/income) is a map of rural poverty, and what we're seeing is that it's getting worse.

Walker said...

Commuting absolutely destroys social capital. See my recent psot on that effect is Salem, Oregon:

Ryan M. Ferris said...

I think the map lines up with poverty, coal and nuclear generating plants, and coal deposits; but the relationships may not be that simple. Is there a national map of affluence, effective public transportation, environmentally well-regulated states?

It looks as if the "down winders" are well represented in SW Nevada and perhaps what was the nuclear facility "Rancho Seco" in CA. However, "Hanford" in WA is white not red. Amazingly, the Pacific Northwest, most of the Rocky Mountains and the Northeast escape red zones as contiguous blocks. Some parts are easy: Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia (poverty and coal mines), the poor south (limited and less than equal access to education and healthcare?). Doesn't look like Silicon Valley/San Francisco's tech wealth and liberalism (health conscious liberalism) hurt it at all. I downloaded the supplementary data from the report and found three S.F. Bay Area counties (Marin, San Mateo, Santa Clara (e.g. Silivalley) in the top ten (out of 3100 plus counties) for 2007 male life expectency. Well, that last exception blows your peak oil commute time theory out of the water somewhat. Commutes to Silivalley are clearly hazardous to your health. Probably not as hazardous as working in coal mines or living in the South... (Persistent Poverty) (Coal Deposits) (Coal Fired Power Plants) (nuclear reactors)

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about the idea of peak life expectancy after peak oil and am glad I googled it as I then found this great post, and plenty of other good stuff by the looks of it