Reason for Optimism

While yesterday’s post (No exaggeration: too many children are dying in U.S.) highlighted the numerous unnecessary childhood deaths in this country and previous posts have discussed the drop in life expectancy in this country, there are still reasons for optimism.

It has been said that newspapers/news programs never report on the thousands of airplanes that don’t crash everyday.  Similarly, it is easy to think that with so many challenges that we face everyday that the world is falling apart.  A recent NY Times commentary by Nicholas Kristof points out that 2018 was in fact the best year ever.

Why 2018 Was the Best Year in Human History!

An excerpt:

[In 2018] Each day on average, about another 295,000 people around the world gained access to electricity for the first time, according to Max Roser of Oxford University and his Our World in Data website. Every day, another 305,000 were able to access clean drinking water for the first time. And each day an additional 620,000 people were able to get online for the first time.

Never before has such a large portion of humanity been literate, enjoyed a middle-class cushion, lived such long lives, had access to family planning or been confident that their children would survive…

Child deaths are becoming far less common. Only about 4 percent of children worldwide now die by the age of 5. That’s still horrifying, but it’s down from 19 percent in 1960 and 7 percent in 2003…

Until about the 1950s, a majority of humans had always lived in “extreme poverty,” defined as less than about $2 a person per day. When I was a university student in the early 1980s, 44 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Now, fewer than 10 percent of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, as adjusted for inflation.

My take: This commentary points out that worldwide people are living longer and living better.

From Golden Gulch Trail, Death Valley

Zip Code vs. Genetic Code

Several posts have highlighted the importance of poverty contributing to high mortality, including the following:

The following infographic shows again how your zip code is likely more important than your genetic code.

Lower Teen Birthrate

Lower Teen Birthrate


What is Wrong with the Glimmer of “Precision Medicine”

Several thought leaders, including Francis Collins, have heralded the age of “precision medicine.” A recent commentary provides compelling arguments why “enthusiasm is premature.”

The greatest problems we face in improving health care do not require precision medicine.

“In 2013, the National Research Council (NRC) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a bleak report on life expectancy and well-being in the United States.  Shorter Lives, Poorer Health documented the extent to which Americans were at a disadvantage at every stage of life compared with their counterparts in peer countries.”  Americans fared worse in all of the following:

  • Birth outcomes
  • Heart disease
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Violence
  • Sexually transmitted disease
  • Chronic lung disease

The NRC notes that “health is determined by far more than health care.”

Other points:

  • While the U.S. may have the most advanced healthcare in the world, the “whiz-bang technology just cannot fix what ails us.” (NY T-inequality-is-costing-the-us-on-social issues.html)
  • “Precision medicine itself may ultimately make critical contributions to a narrow set of conditions, but the challenge we face…entails…willingness to address certain persistent social realities”
  • “Our public investments in broad, cross-sectional efforts to minimize…foundational drivers of poor health as poverty…are pitifully few in comparison with those of other countries.”
  • Take-home message from authors: “We worry that an unstinting focus on precision medicine by trusted spokespeople for health is a mistake — and a distraction from the goal of producing a healthier population.”

My view: The challenges posed by the authors do seem monumentally greater than those facing the development of precision medicine.

Related blog posts:

Here's a Book Where the Title May Be Misinterpreted

Here’s a Book Where the Title May Be Misinterpreted


2015 Wish List

A recent policy article (JAMA Pediatr 2014; 168: 1155-63 –thanks to Ben Gold for this reference) outlines “10 urgent priorities for the health and health care of US children.”  These priorities and some of the action steps are as follows:

  1. Poverty: “16.1 million children (22%) live in poverty. ” Action steps include enacting measures to improve employment in families and extending child tax credits.
  2. Food Insufficiency: “>16 million children live in food-insecure homes.” Actions could include investing rather than cutting children’s nutrition programs.
  3. Lack of health insurance: affects “7 million children (9%)” though two-thirds are eligible for coverage by Medicaid and CHIP. Actions could include fully funding CHOP and Medicaid and abolishing ACA family glitch along with improving outreach to enroll eligible children.
  4. Child abuse/neglect (maltreatment): “In 2011, 681,000 children experienced maltreatment and 1570 died” as a consequence.  Everyday, a child is abused or neglected every 47 seconds.  Action steps included focusing on domestic violence and treatment and funding more screening and preventative treatment research.
  5. Obesity: “32% of children are overweight and 17% are obese.”  Actions could include passing FIT kids Act (HR 2178) and maximizing funding for USDA’s Farmers market promotion program and the Fresh fruit and vegetable program.
  6. Firearms deaths/injuries: 5 children die daily by firearms.  Actions could include better background checks, along with regulations to require safer storage and safety classes.  Other options include higher taxation on weaponry and ammunition to “better represent societal costs.”
  7. Racial disparities: Action steps include monitoring and disclosing disparities and working to ensure all children have a medical home.
  8. Mental Health: up to 20% of children experience a mental health disorder annually.  Actions could include increasing the number of qualified mental-health providers (by enhancing reimbursement).
  9. Immigration: “children living in immigrant families are the fastest growing group of US children.” Action could include obtain health insurance for all children.
  10. Research: Increase funding for children.  Overall NIH pediatric funding is 12% of total budget whereas children represent 24% of US population.

The problems faced by this nation’s children will reverberate for a long time.  For example, with childhood poverty, it is “associated with substantially higher mortality rates in adults, regardless of adult socioeconomic status (i.e., even affluent adults who were poor as children have elevated death rates), and this increased mortality risk extends across 2 generations.”

Bottomline: Children receive a disproportionately low share of federal expenditures and this extends to healthcare.  In addition, federal spending on children in 2014 has decreased by more than $20 billion (14%) since 2010.

Blog post:

A Lack of $2.17 Can Cost Thousands More

An interesting article in the NY Times explains a couple situations in which patients reluctantly admit their lack of financial resources and how this impacts their care.  The article underscores the message that doctors need to find a careful way to find out if patients can afford their medications.

Here’s the link:  and here’s an excerpt:

His protuberant belly was actually a sign of serious liver disease that had quickly worsened…

“I know how to take the pills, but I can’t buy them,” he said, his eyes refusing to meet mine as he stared at a spot on the hospital’s beige floor…The medicines were crucial to helping him avoid landing in the hospital again, so I went down to the pharmacy to see what the problem might be. “The co-pay is $2.17,” the pharmacist told me matter-of-factly, referring to a white paper bag with a few pill-filled bottles inside…The medications cost less than a subway ticket, but were still more than my patient could afford. If he ended up in the hospital again because he couldn’t take them, the medical costs would be thousands of times greater than $2.17…

recent report in The American Journal of Medicine that found that one-third of Americans suffering from a chronic illness such as diabetes or high blood pressure said they had trouble affording medications, food or both…

The standard co-payment was $20, the doctor told her, and then gently asked if it would be a problem to pay.  The mother shook her head, but tears were welling up in her eyes. “But we can’t come back in a few months,” she blurted out. “It’s just too expensive.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she looked away as her cheeks flushed. Her daughters sat silently on the exam table, their thin legs swinging back and forth.

I felt the family’s shame and embarrassment, and in retrospect, it seems obvious they lacked enough to eat. Yet we wouldn’t have known they were pressed for funds if our patient hadn’t brought up the issue at the last minute. The pediatrician was able to waive the co-payment, but it was just another short-term fix to a longer-term problem.

Neither doctors nor medical students can solve a patient’s financial problems on the spot. Yet any one of us can be the first to detect a problem. If we’ve done the research, we can help patients get the assistance they need, or at least direct them to social workers, pharmacists and other members of the health care team who can. What we cannot do is fail to ask.

Zip Code or Genetic Code -which is more important for longevity?

From NY Times:

An excerpt:

Fairfax County, Va., and McDowell County, W.Va., are separated by 350 miles, about a half-day’s drive. Traveling west from Fairfax County, the gated communities and bland architecture of military contractors give way to exurbs, then to farmland and eventually to McDowell’s coal mines and the forested slopes of the Appalachians. Perhaps the greatest distance between the two counties is this: Fairfax is a place of the haves, and McDowell of the have-nots. Just outside of Washington, fat government contracts and a growing technology sector buoy the median household income in Fairfax County up to $107,000, one of the highest in the nation. McDowell, with the decline of coal, has little in the way of industry. Unemployment is high. Drug abuse is rampant. Median household income is about one-fifth that of Fairfax.

One of the starkest consequences of that divide is seen in the life expectancies of the people there. Residents of Fairfax County are among the longest-lived in the country: Men have an average life expectancy of 82 years and women, 85, about the same as in Sweden. In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq….           

There have long been stark economic differences between Fairfax County and McDowell. But as their fortunes have diverged even further over the past generation, their life expectancies have diverged, too. In McDowell, women’s life expectancy has actually fallen by two years since 1985; it grew five years in Fairfax.

“Poverty is a thief,” said Michael Reisch, a professor of social justice at the University of Maryland, testifying before a Senate panel on the issue. “Poverty not only diminishes a person’s life chances, it steals years from one’s life.”

That reality is playing out across the country. For the upper half of the income spectrum, men who reach the age of 65 are living about six years longer than they did in the late 1970s. Men in the lower half are living just 1.3 years longer.

This life-expectancy gap has started to surface in discussions among researchers, public health officials and Washington policy makers. The general trend is for Americans to live longer, and as lawmakers contemplate changes to government programs — like nudging up the Social Security retirement age or changing its cost-of-living adjustment — they are confronted with the potential unfairness to those who die considerably earlier.

The link between income and longevity has been clearly established. Poor people are likelier to smoke. They have less access to the health care system. They tend to weigh more. And their bodies suffer the debilitating effects of more intense and more constant stress. Everywhere, and across time, the poor tend to live shorter lives than the rich, whether researchers compare the Bangladeshis with the Dutch or minimum-wage workers with millionaires.

But is widening income inequality behind the divergence in longevity over the last three decades? …

Living in Fairfax is different than living in McDowell.

In Fairfax, there are ample doctors, hospitals, recreation centers, shops, restaurants, grocery stores, nursing homes and day care centers, with public and private entities providing cradle-to-grave services to prosperous communities…

The jobs tend to be good jobs, providing health insurance and pensions, even if there is a growing low-wage work force of health aides, janitors, fast-food workers and the like. “It’s a knowledge-based work force,” Mr. Fuller said. “And we have an economy built on services, technology-intensive services.”

…350 miles away, …

Coal miners still dig into and blast off the tops of steep Appalachian hills. But the industry that once provided thousands of jobs is slowly disappearing, and the region’s entrenched poverty has persisted. The unemployment rate is 8.8 percent, down from more than 13 percent in the worst of the recession. The current number would be even higher if more residents hadn’t simply given up looking for work.

Government assistance accounts for half of the income of county residents. Social workers described shortages of teachers, nurses, doctors, surgeons, mental health professionals and addiction-treatment workers. There is next to no public transportation…

Many people … have multiple woes: “Diabetes. Obesity. Congestive heart failure. Drug use. Kidney problems. Lung conditions from the mines.” Problems often start young and often result in shorter lives, she said. Earlier that day, she handed me a list of recent funerals with about half highlighted in yellow; they signified that the deceased was under 50…

But dollars in a bank account have never added a day to anyone’s life, researchers stress. Instead, those dollars are at work in a thousand daily-life decisions — about jobs, medical care, housing, food and exercise — with a cumulative effect on longevity…

As such, the health statistics for Fairfax and McDowell are as striking as their income data. In Fairfax, the adult obesity rate is about 24 percent and one in eight residents smokes. In McDowell, the adult obesity rate is more than 30 percent and one in three adults smokes. And the disability rate is about five times higher in McDowell.

In both counties, food availability matters. There are only two full-size grocery stores in McDowell; minimarts and fast-food restaurants are major sources of nutrition. “We don’t have gyms or fitness centers,” said Pamela McPeak, who grew up in McDowell getting creek water to flush her family’s toilet. “It’s cheaper to buy Cheetos rather than apples.” She now runs a nonprofit program that provides tutoring and helps high school students get into college.

Education is also correlated with longevity, as it is with income and employment. Educated individuals are much more likely to work, and much more likely to have higher incomes. In McDowell, about one in 18 adults has a college degree; in Fairfax, the share is 60 percent.

Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, researchers say that a life in poverty is a life of stress that accumulates in a person’s very cells. Being poor is hard in a way that can mean worse sleep, more cortisol in the blood, a greater risk of hypertension and, ultimately, a shorter life…

It is hard to prove causality with the available information. County-level data is the most detailed available, but it is not perfect. People move, and that is a confounding factor. McDowell’s population has dropped by more than half since the late 1970s, whereas Fairfax’s has roughly doubled. Perhaps more educated and healthier people have been relocating from places like McDowell to places like Fairfax. In that case, life expectancy would not have changed; how Americans arrange themselves geographically would have…

In particular, changes in smoking and obesity rates may help explain the connection between bigger bank accounts and longer lives. “Richer people and richer communities smoke less, and that gap is growing,” said Dr. Murray at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation…

To some extent, the broad expansion of health insurance to low-income communities, as called for under Obamacare, may help to mitigate this stark divide, experts say. And it is encouraging that both Republicans and Democrats have recently elevated the issues of poverty, economic mobility and inequality, But the contrast between McDowell and Fairfax shows just how deeply entrenched these trends are, with consequences reaching all the way from people’s pocketbooks to their graves.

Related blog posts: