Living in a democratic country may add 11 years to your life expectancy, according to new research from the University of British Columbia’s department of sociology.
The study found that people living in countries that hold free and fair elections live 11 years longer, on average, and see a reduction in infant mortality by almost two-thirds.
Andrew Patterson, the study’s lead author who completed his PhD at UBC, explains the findings and the impact of democracy on health.
Why do people living in democratic countries tend to live longer?
Common wisdom dictates that in democracies, citizens are able to push for policies and ask for benefits that they could not otherwise do in another kind of regime. But this research shows that economic factors may also be an important part of the picture.
While our study indicates that people in democracies may live 11 years longer than citizens of non-democratic countries, a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) accounts for eight of those years in models. Once we control for GDP, people live only three years longer, on average, compared to citizens of non-democratic countries.
One possible interpretation of these findings is that people live longer in democracies because these countries are richer. They have stronger capital, purchasing power and political clout. In other words, money buys health at the same time that democracy creates wealth. However, democracies don’t appear to improve population health by reducing income inequality. This is somewhat surprising since one of the founding principles of democracy is that it should make us all free and equal under the law.
How much of an effect does democracy have on life expectancy?
The advantage in life expectancy depends on how long a democratic government has been in place. People who reside in a democracy during its first year of rule live two years longer on average. Yet in countries that have been democratic for more than 25 years, people enjoy 14 years of additional life expectancy compared to those living in non-democratic countries of similar experience.
We found the same impact on the rate of infant mortality. Democracies have a modest reduction in infant mortality of 12.7 per cent on average during their first year of rule, but this difference grows to a 77.5 per cent reduction for regimes that are at least 25 years old.
What can governments and policymakers learn from these findings?
One of the most important takeaways is simply that political factors do have implications for health. Although access to medicine is important, some things occur on a larger scale that can determine how many people get sick and whether there are medicines to cure them. The study suggests that the way decisions are made in a society— whether they are shared rather than coming from one person, the organizational protocols that are in place and the institutional infrastructures both inside and outside of the health-care system— all these things matter.
While it appears that democracy and life expectancy are linked, our study doesn’t make any general recommendations that countries should democratize or that economic growth is the panacea of health interventions. There is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all way to handle policy issues. For example, many people have pushed for austerity measures since the 1980s as a cure for stunted economic growth, but evidence has emerged to suggest that these policies are good for neither growth nor health.
The study, “Politics and population health: Testing the impact of electoral democracy,” by Andrew C. Patterson and Gerry Veenstra, professor in UBC’s department of sociology, is forthcoming in the July issue of Health & Place.