The next time you vote for an elected official, you might be deciding more than the election: you could be making a statement about your health. If you’re conservative or moderate, you may actually die sooner than someone with a liberal outlook.
This is the conclusion reached by Peter Muennig, associate professor of Health Policy and Management at the Mailman School, in new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. But it begs the question: why?
The results, based on the results of a large survey of American adults matched with their death records, were not explained by income, education, geography, happiness, or how religious they feel. The researchers controlled for these factors, all known to affect health. Instead they offer two possibilities. First, liberals may have stronger community ties; and social cohesion is known to be a factor in health. Second, the two groups may have different parenting styles. Evidence suggests that conservatives are more likely to have strict parents who limited kids’ experiences and control their choice of friends. The result could stunt social capital, another mark against good health.
Muennig and his study co-authors aren’t the first to look at this question. Prior studies exploring the connection between health and political affiliation found that conservatives had better health than liberals. But those results were based on self-reported health; what people believe about their health may not match their actual health status. Muennig used a more reliable measure: each survey respondent’s answers were linked to how soon they died. If liberals overestimated their health, it might be because they are dissatisfied with their lives and health, and perhaps even a touch hypochondriac. On the other hand, conservatives may be more likely to think behaviors like smoking are benign.
But even when Muennig and colleagues substituted self-reported health for time-to-death, their findings held true: liberals were more likely to report good health. What then could account for the discrepancy? The researchers say the causative arrow might point in the other direction. To wit: it’s possible that being in poor health may lead someone to become more liberal. “It is definitely possible that sickness could change someone's ideology or party affiliation,” says Muennig. One example: someone might have hospital bed conversion to the idea of universal healthcare.
The researchers didn’t stop at political beliefs. They took a separate look at political party affiliation. It’s important to look at affiliation separately from ideology because the former is shaped by where someone lives, religion, and family traditions, sometimes even more than where they stand on the issues, explain Muennig and co-authors Roman Pabayo at the University of Nevada and Ichiro Kawachi at the Harvard School of Public Health. The result: there was no significant difference in survival between Republicans and Democrats, but Independents were more likely to outlive Democrats.
“Independents tend to live in healthier, wealthier places,” says Muennig. “They are a unique brand, and probably draw some of the beneficial characteristics from either end of the political spectrum.” Conservatives tend to be wealthy, which is good for health; and liberals have attitudes like racial tolerance, which Muennig found to be protective of health in a previous study of the same survey data.
At the end of the day, what do the findings mean for public health? Should the country reorient itself leftward? Not exactly, says Muennig. “It might not be ideology that is important, but rather the personal characteristics that tend to go along with the ideology. From a policy perspective, knowing that ideology is important also helps us pinpoint these underlying health risks.”