Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1255:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1255.

Today, we seem to find that it's healthy to be wealthy. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Doctor Robert Evans and his colleagues offer a book with the title, Why Are Some People Healthy and Others Not? Why indeed? Evans quotes facts that cry out for explanation. First, a graph of deaths among male English civil servants between the ages of 40 and 64. Over a ten-year period, 16 percent of the blue collar workers died, 12 percent of the clerical workers, 8 percent of the professionals, and only 5 percent of the executives died.

It's true that more people smoke on the low end of the status scale. But not enough to explain a four-to-one difference between top and bottom. In fact, the few top people who do smoke suffer less from the habit than people low in the pecking order.

This opens the door to all kinds of rationale. The social Darwinist says, "Of course! Superior people are healthier, smarter, live longer, and rise higher." The voice of social conscience says, "Inequity and injustice harm people in far more ways than just encouraging the poor to smoke cigarettes." A third view says high status is good for you on some psychic level.

Next, Evans considers how tuberculosis deaths have steadily decreased since 1840. The introduction of chemotherapy treatment in 1948, and vaccination in 1955, sped that decline but neither caused it. Something else was going on. As the standard of living rose, so did everyone's general health. In effect, the social status of the general population also rose during that period.

Evans also looks at blood pressure. People from all social levels have about the same readings at work, but those lower on the social scale have higher blood pressure at home. They live in a more stressful environment and they suffer far more heart disease.

A comparison of Japanese and American life expectancies provides another compelling statistic. Americans live about five years longer than they did in 1960, but Japanese live twelve years longer. The problem is, Japanese diet and social order have changed little. The quality of their health care has improved less than ours. What has changed is Japan's rise in the hierarchy of nations. You might say that Japan is no longer a blue-collar country.

Of course we miss the point if we think we have to be rich to be healthy. What we need isn't wealth. It's calm and stability. Studies of poor populations show that life expectancy rises when women are better educated and better equipped to determine their own lives. And those are factors that lend stability to a society.

Still, poverty surely fosters stress in many ways, and stress shortens life. Longevity means finding calm and forging contentment. Poet Thomas Campion said it wonderfully well 400 years ago:

Good thoughts his only friends,
His wealth a well-spent age,
The earth his sober inn
And quiet pilgrimage.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Evans, R. G., M. L. Barer, and T. R. Marmor, eds. Why Are Some People Healthy and Others Not? New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1994.

I am grateful to David Low, President of the UT Health Science Center at Houston, for providing me with this source.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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