Here’s How Health Problems and Poverty Gang Up Against Americans

Source: ThinkstockPoverty and health care have some very obvious statistical links. This is not news. An enormous number of health problems in the United States have been linked to socioeconomic levels. Ann Brown of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program writes that studies have shown a connection between socioeconomic status, congestive heart failure, and air pollution risks.

What we know about Type 2 diabetes is not only are low-income and poor people more likely to get it, but they’re also the ones that are much more likely to suffer complications. And the complications from Type 2 diabetes when they’re bad are all bad, whether it’s amputations, or blindness, or cardiovascular disease,” said Prof. Dennis Raphael, according to Diabetes In Control, in discussion of research he conducted in 2010.

Diabetes can be caused by genetic factors, as we see with Type 1 diabetes, and lifestyle factors can help manage, but cannot prevent manifestation of that form. Type 2 diabetes is more often linked to diet and exercise, which are two things also linked heavily with obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease — three problems also associated with poverty.

There have also been more specific studies done on extreme forms of poverty, such as the homeless population, which is highly linked to cadiovascular disease. This is in large part because preventive health care and check-ups are so rare in this population. Failure to recognize, treat, and alleviate progression results in worsening cases. Correlation does not imply causation — it’s the most basic rule of research anyone learns. Just because there is a connection between two things does not mean one thing directly causes the other. With poverty, this is fairly obvious. Does having money in your pocket ward off diabetes like a talisman? No, of course not. Are lower socioeconomic statuses also linked to lower levels of health education and less money to afford healthy meals?

These sorts of factors all begin to congeal into a more complete picture of how different aspects of poverty that are likely to be seen might increase certain health risks. Diabetes can worsen when left untreated or unmanaged. But health insurance, regular doctor check-ups, and medication are all expensive. A single mom who has to work multiple jobs to pay the bills has less time and energy to cook. Fast food and unhealthy eating options become more convenient, and sometimes cheaper. Fast food restaurants and less healthy food options are often marketed to poorer income regions, and the same can be said of other risk factors, like tobacco billboards and alcohol ads.

One thing people often fail to remember when they consider connections between obesity-related health problems and economic status especially, is that poverty and disease aren’t directly linked at every scale. In wealthy countries like the United States, the American Diabetes Association reports poorer members of the population have a higher likelihood of obesity, and indirectly, the problems that go along with it. But looked at globally, nations that have poorer populations in general tend to have lower obesity levels. “The international trend is that greater obesity tracks with greater wealth.” So the United States, one of the more fiscally well of nations, has a very high rate of obesity, but countries like China and India have only started to see obesity rates go up as their economy has improved.

However, once a nation is wealthier, food is no longer scarce, and it becomes a question of quality, quantity, and lifestyle. Unhealthy food is often cheaper, and satiates hunger more effectively for less money — a function of food insecurity. Eating habits are often different for those who worry more about money for meals, spacing of finances and food amounts is altered. Less healthy food in the United States is also more available most places. Affordable and healthy options are more scarce in some areas than others, and affordable becomes relative for some families. There’s also the matter of exercise. Someone who works 70 hour work weeks is less able to exercise regularly. Someone living in a rougher area without money for a gym membership may be less able to work out regularly. Once developing countries reach a point where they are importing pre-packaged, unhealthy, but cheap and convenient foods high in salt, sugar, and fat content, obesity becomes a problem. In places where obesity was never a problem in the past, education on proper diet and healthy eating may not be in place. The United States itself has had to make major efforts on that front.

Finally, there’s the matter of psychological aspects of poverty, as brought up by Brookings. It comes as little surprise that the higher the level of income, the less respondents report feeling “pain, worry, sadness, stress, and anger.” Well-being scores also go down with monthly income, and as a result, incidents of chronic pain and mental health wellness go up and down respectively. Psychological concerns aside, there are psychosomatic effects of stress that can manifest into serious health problems, or exacerbate already present conditions.

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