Thursday, June 8, 2017

Lessons from Sweden

Sunset over Lake Vättern near
Jönköping, Sweden

As you probably know, I have spent considerable time in Sweden over the years, working with colleagues at the Institute for Gerontology at Jönköping University.  There is much to be learned from Sweden about how to provide care for older people and I wrote about some of those issues in detail in May, 2016.  But I recently came across something else of note involving Sweden.

In last Sunday’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about inequality in society.  His column had the provocative title, “What Monkeys Can Teach Us About Fairness.”  The part of the column about monkeys and fairness was quite interesting, but I want to focus on another point. 

Kristof described a study in which people in the US were shown two pie charts that displayed the income distribution of residents of two unnamed countries, one with relatively equal distributions and the other with more pronounced differences between rich and poor.  When asked which country they would rather live in, 92 percent of Americans said they would prefer to live in the country with the more equal distribution of income.  That country was Sweden.  The country with the large gap between rich and poor?  The US.

Inequalities are problematic for many reasons.  Some observers say that the growing gap between rich and poor contributes to the harsh tone of our political discourse and to the sense of alienation of many voters. 

Inequality may also affect aging.  I have been reading papers recently by Jay Olshansky, who is a professor of public health at the University of Illinois—Chicago.  He documents that while life expectancy in the US has continued to rise, the increases are greatest among more highly educated people, who also tend to be the most economically advantaged.  The gap in life expectancy between whites and African Americans has grown.  Among white Americans with the lowest education, life expectancy has actually been decreasing.  One reason for this growing gap is that people with low income and education tend to have poorer health habits and inadequate access to health care.  They also have higher levels of chronic stress.  Chronic stress leads to increased risk of illness, but as Olshansky points out, it may actually speed up the aging process.   He cites growing evidence that markers of aging such as telomeres are affected by stress, which may contribute to the increasing gap in life expectancy.

Maybe it’s no wonder that Swedes live longer than we do.

Here is a link to the Kristof column:

And references to Olshansky’s work:

Olshansky, S. J. (2015). Has the rate of human aging already been modified?  Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, 5, a025965

Olshansky et al., (2011) Differences In Life Expectancy Due To Race And Educational Differences Are Widening, And Many May Not Catch Up, Health Affairs, 31, 1803-1813. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2011.0746