Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Income, obesity, and heart disease in US states

The figure below combines data on median income by state (bottom-left and top-right), as well as a plot of heart disease death rates against percentage of population with body mass index (BMI) greater than 30 percent. The data are recent, and have been provided by CNN.com and creativeclass.com, respectively.

Heart disease deaths and obesity are strongly associated with each other, and both are inversely associated with median income. US states with lower median income tend to have generally higher rates of obesity and heart disease deaths.

The reasons are probably many, complex, and closely interconnected. Low income is usually associated with high rates of stress, depression, smoking, alcoholism, and poor nutrition. Compounding the problem, these are normally associated with consumption of cheap, addictive, highly refined foods.

Interestingly, this is primarily an urban phenomenon. If you were to use hunter-gatherers as your data sources, you would probably see the opposite relationship. For example, non-westernized hunter-gatherers have no income (at least not in the “normal” sense), but typically have a lower incidence of obesity and heart disease than mildly westernized ones. The latter have some income.

Tragically, the first few generations of fully westernized hunter-gatherers usually find themselves in the worst possible spot.