Living longer

Almost all of us would like to live longer, and consequently, most make efforts to do so. As far back as the 16th century, Ponce De Leon sailed to Bimini from Puerto Rico in search of a spring that restored youth to all who bathed there. Too, bookstore shelves are lined with titles that offer ways to reduce aging.

Not long ago Sir Michael Marmot, a professor of epidemiology and public health at University College in London, England, wrote a book, The Status Syndrome. He contends that the paramount consideration in determining our health and longevity is social standing.

After nearly 30 years of research in all parts of the world, Marmot learned the importance of status in health, well-being, and longevity. Professor Marmot argued that we have concentrated on improvements in technology and understanding genetics to prolong lives, but instead we should focus on social inequalities, social status, as the principal cause of ill health and a short life span.

This is well illustrated in the example of the British civil service, a class-ridden institution where there is a proven correlation in the health and duration of life. He wrote that, “Rates of disease increased progressively down the social ladder.” All can afford proper nutrition and access to health care is free, so one’s position is the key to longevity.

The author weighed what he called “the usual suspects of bad health, bad habits, lack of proper health care, unlucky genes.” He tried to include other factors, such as poor living conditions, smoking, eating unhealthily, or the environment. He disputes the theory that good health leads to success in life and conversely, that poor health leads to failures in careers and in life in general. Marmot noticed throughout his travels all around the globe that one’s social standing determined one’s health; not the other way around.

The book states that occupation is a definer of social status. Status is related to health. If a person becomes unemployed, there is a change is social status. Although the author does not write about retirement, one may infer that a person newly retired loses status and, as is the case frequently, dies soon thereafter because of a lack of social status.

The story of Captain Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic is noteworthy. Despite the fact that living conditions were the same for everyone there, the lower-class members of the group were the first to die.

Professor Marmot stated that not all smokers die of lung cancer, but the death rate among smokers, their susceptibility to lung cancer, for instance, depends less on living conditions, but the inequalities in that person’s position in society. It follows then that taking steps to reduce inequalities in society certainly would improve longevity.

Bruce Whitestone