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Three indicators of health are used worldwide: life expectancy, infant mortality, and subjective well-being.Life expectancyrefers to the average number of years a person is expected to live from birth

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Chapter 7 Culture and Psychology

THREE INDICATORS OF HEALTH WORLDWIDE

Life Expectancy

Three indicators of health are used worldwide: life expectancy, infant mortality, and subjective well-being. Life expectancy refers to the average number of years a person is expected to live from birth (as opposed to calculating life expectancy from, for example, age 65). Figure 7.2 shows the average life expectancy for selected countries. In 2010, a comparison of 224 countries showed that the countries with the longest average life expectancies are Monaco (90 years), Macau (84), Japan (82), Singapore (82), Hong Kong (82), Australia (82), and Canada (81). The United States is ranked 49th, at 78 years of age. Countries with the shortest life expectancies are South Africa (49 years), Swaziland and Zimbabwe (48), Afghanistan (45), and Angola (38) (CIA, The World Factbook, 2010).

A large part of explaining such drastic life expectancy differences is the general wealth and resources of a country (Barkan, 2010). Wealthier countries with greater resources have better access to better diet, nutrition, health care, and advanced technology to maintain health and prevent and treat diseases. Thus, life expectancy is lengthened. In contrast, poorer nations with the fewest resources are more likely to suffer from hunger, malnutrition, AIDS and other diseases, and lack of access to basics for survival such as clean water, sanitary waste removal, vaccinations, and other medications. Thus, life expectancy is shortened.

Source: CIA Factbook.

Importantly, disparities in life expectancies can be even greater within one country. In the United States, for instance, life expectancy differs by ethnicity (which is usually confounded with socioeconomic status). For European Americans, life expectancy is 78.3 years. In contrast, for African Americans, this is shortened by 5 years, to 73.2 years. And when gender is taken into account, the disparities are even greater: African American males’ life expectancy is 69.5 years, compared to European American females at 80.5 years. These statistics show clear health disparities between ethnic groups in the United States. These health disparities occur in pluralistic countries where ethnic majority individuals (who, in general, have higher socioeconomic status than ethnic minorities), tend to have longer life expectancies than ethnic minority individuals. We will address possible reasons for these health disparities later in the chapter.

In general, across the globe, we are living longer. Worldwide, the average life expectancy in the 1950s was 46 years. In 2009 it was 69 years, and this is expected to increase to 75 years by 2050 (Barkan, 2010; United Nations Population Division, 2009). Nonetheless, great disparities across countries in average life expectancies mean that possibilities for good health and a long life are enjoyed by people in some countries, but not others.

Infant Mortality

Infant mortality is defined as the number of infant deaths (one year old or younger) per 1,000 live births. Figure 7.3 shows infant mortality rates for selected countries.

Comparing across 224 countries in 2010, Angola (178 infant deaths per 1,000 live births), Afghanistan (152), and Niger (115) had the highest rates of infant mortality while Bermuda (3), Singapore (2), and Monaco (2) had the lowest. The United States was ranked 46th, with 6 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births (CIA, The World Factbook, 2010). Compared to other industrialized countries, infant mortality rates in the United States are among the highest.

There has, however, been a steady decrease in infant mortality in the United States over the past century—from 100 infant deaths per 1,000 births in 1900, to 6 infant deaths per 1,000 births in 2010. Similar to life expectancy, however, there are disparities by ethnic group. In the United States, African American infants (14) have the highest infant mortality rates compared to other ethnic groups such as Native American (8), European American (6), Mexican (6) and Asian/Pacific Islander (5) (MacDorman & Mathews, 2008).

In sum, life expectancy and infant mortality rates are broad indicators of health that show diversity in health outcomes around the world. A large part of these differences can be attributed to resources that ensure access to good nutrition, health care, and treatment (Barkan, 2010). To add to these objective indicators of health, researchers have focused more recently on an important subjective indicator of health—happiness, or subjective well-being.

Source: CIA Factbook.

Subjective Well-Being

In contrast to life expectancy and infant mortality, subjective well-being (SWB) focuses on one’s perceptions and self-judgments of health and well-being. Subjective well-being encompasses a person’s feelings of happiness and life satisfaction (Diener & Ryan, 2009). Diener and Ryan (2009) state the importance of this subjective aspect of health:

  • The main applied goal of researchers who study subjective well-being is the improvement of people’s lives beyond the elimination of misery. Because subjective well-being is a key component of quality of life, its measurement is crucial to understanding how to improve people’s lives. In addition, a growing body of research shows that high levels of subjective well-being are beneficial to the effective functioning of societies beyond the advantages they bestow on individuals. (p. 392)

Source: Inglehart, Foa, Petersen, & Weltzel (2008). Development, freedom, and rising happiness: A global perspective (1987–2007). Perspectives in Psychological Science, 3(4), pp. 264–285, Copyright © 2008 by Sage Publications. Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications.

Importantly, subjective well-being is positively related to physical health. In one study, researchers infected healthy people with a virus for the common cold. The findings showed that those who reported higher levels of SWB were less susceptible to the virus than those with lower levels of SWB (Cohen, Doyle, Turner, Alper, & Skoner, 2003). Others have found that people reporting higher SWB have stronger immune systems, fewer heart attacks, and less artery blockage (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2008). These findings support studies showing that higher SWB may lead to a longer life expectancy (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001). It’s worth noting that one reason why SWB may be related to better physical health is that people with higher SWB also tend to engage in healthier lifestyles (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2008; Diener & Ryan, 2009).

The big question is, then: What predicts subjective well-being? In other words, what makes people happy? Many studies have examined whether affluence, or material wealth, is related to happiness. Figure 7.4 shows levels of SWB in relation to per capita gross domestic product (GDP) across 88 countries.

Chapter 7 Culture and Psychology

THREE INDICATORS OF HEALTH WORLD WIDE

Life Expectancy

Three indicators of health are used worldwide: life expectancy, infant mortality, and subjective well-being. Life expectancy refers to the average number of years a person is expected to live from birth (as opposed to calculating life expectancy from, for example, age 65). Figure 7.2 shows the average life expectancy for selected countries. In 2010, a comparison of 224 countries showed that the countries with the longest average life expectancies are Monaco (90 years), Macau (84), Japan (82), Singapore (82), Hong Kong (82), Australia (82), and Canada (81). The United States is ranked 49th, at 78 years of age. Countries with the shortest life expectancies are South Africa (49 years), Swaziland and Zimbabwe (48), Afghanistan (45), and Angola (38) (CIA, The World Factbook, 2010).

A large part of explaining such drastic life expectancy differences is the general wealth and resources of a country (Barkan, 2010). Wealthier countries with greater resources have better access to better diet, nutrition, health care, and advanced technology to maintain health and prevent and treat diseases. Thus, life expectancy is lengthened. In contrast, poorer nations with the fewest resources are more likely to suffer from hunger, malnutrition, AIDS and other diseases, and lack of access to basics for survival such as clean water, sanitary waste removal, vaccinations, and other medications. Thus, life expectancy is shortened.

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