We all want a long, happy life, but how does one get it? New research from the University of British Columbia (UBC) can’t tell us, but it will tell us which social factors were most associated with death between 2008 and 2014.
Smoking, alcohol abuse, and divorce were the three closest-linked factors to death during this time interval out of a list of 57 social and behavioral factors. The team used data collected from 13,611 U.S. adults between 1992 and 2008, tying it to which factors applied to those who died between 2008 and 2014.
A good life
“It shows that a lifespan approach is needed to really understand health and mortality,” said Eli Puterman, Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of kinesiology and lead author of the study.
“For example, instead of just asking whether people are unemployed, we looked at their history of unemployment over 16 years. If they were unemployed at any time, was that a predictor of mortality? It’s more than just a one-time snapshot in people’s lives, where something might be missed because it did not occur. Our approach provides a look at potential long-term impacts through a lifespan lens.”
The research was prompted by the observation that life expectancy in the U.S. stagnated, as compared to those in other industrialized countries, for the last three decades (only picking up recently). Medical and biological factors definitely have a huge impact, so they were omitted from this study in order to make room for social, psychological, economic, and behavioural factors.
Data was obtained from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study, a nationally-representative study with participants from 50 to 104 years old. While obviously still limited — the survey didn’t capture factors such as food insecurity or domestic abuse — its results can help us understand, in broad lines, which factors or coupling of factors seemed most closely aligned with death for the participants.
A total of 57 factors was analyzed. Out of this list, the 10 most closely associated with death, in order, were:
- Being a smoker
- A history of divorce
- Past or present alcohol abuse
- Going through financial difficulties recently
- A history of unemployment
- A history of smoking
- Feeling lower levels of life satisfaction
- Having never married
- Having relied on food stamps in the past or presently
- Negative affect
“If we’re going to put money and effort into interventions or policy changes, these areas could potentially provide the greatest return on that investment,” Puterman said.
While smoking has long been identified as a driver of preventable death, the weight of factors such as negative affect or unemployment is surprising. Given how important they were determined to be here, the team says that targeting them with interventions might be a good idea. However, it’s not yet clear what such interventions would look like, whether these factors can be targeted as such, and whether interventions here would actually lead to a reduction in the risk of death.
The paper “Predicting mortality from 57 economic, behavioral, social, and psychological factors” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.