Is A Wealthy Heart A Healthy Heart?
Excerpted from Thomas Cowan, MD's new book, Human Heart, Cosmic Heart.
It’s well known that one of the biggest risk factors for poor health is poverty.1 Countless studies have examined the relationship between obesity and poverty;2 between diabetes and poverty;3 between mental illness and poverty;4 between heart disease and poverty.5 As with the term heart disease, it’s important, if challenging, to define and contextualize what we’re talking about when we refer to poverty. Simplistically put, poverty can be defined as “the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.”6 And there are various benchmarks to define this in the United States and worldwide. For example, in one report issued by the Pew Research Center, anyone living on less than two dollars a day is considered poor.7 In 2016, the US federal poverty line was $11,880 for a household of one and $24,300 for a family of four.8 But what does it mean to live on $2 a day in Swaziland versus $2 a day in India? Or $11,880 in rural Kentucky versus $11,800 in San Francisco? More importantly, is money the only measure of what it means to suffer from poverty? And if there is such a strong correlation between poverty and poor health, will it ever really be possible to improve people’s health without taking on industrial capitalism, income inequality, and injustice of every stripe? It seems significant that while poverty has supposedly declined in the United States and worldwide in recent years, the rate of chronic disease has climbed and is expected to continue to do so.9
In 1939, Weston A. Price published his landmark book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, following extensive ethnographic nutritional studies of communities and cultures around the world including Polynesians, Native Americans, Aborigines, and the Lötschental in Switzerland. It was a significant moment in history to study the intersection between nutrition and traditional communities since both were undergoing rapid and monumental changes. The moment provided Dr. Price with an opportunity to observe communities whose nutritional (and other) habits had changed significantly and those that hadn’t—or hadn’t yet.
Dr. Price found that where a diet high in sugar and processed foods had not taken hold, inhabitants were models of long, disease-free living—even though many had no money at all. They were neither living in poverty, nor did they have poor health. This suggests that the real risk factor for poor health and disease is having less money than those around you in societies where one needs money to procure the basic necessities of life and to avoid living in conditions that are rife with social and physical toxins. Certainly, this appears to be true in the United States today.
However, research is also emerging that suggests we still have a ways to go before we will fully understand the relationship between poverty and disease.10 To me, that means we also still have a ways to go before we can say that raising the standard of living worldwide—as defined by employment, wealth, comfort, and possession of material goods—via our present path of growth-driven industrial capitalism is the quickest route to a greater well-being for all. I don’t think that, as a society, we’ll ever be able to buy our way to good health even though this may be possible in some individual cases.
Thomas Cowan, MD, has studied and written about many subjects in medicine including nutrition, homeopathy, anthroposophical medicine, and herbal medicine. He is the principal author of The Fourfold Path to Healing and co-author (with Sally Fallon) of The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care. Dr. Cowan has served as vice president of the Physicians’ Association for Anthroposophic Medicine and is a founding board member of the Weston A. Price Foundation®.
Sources and References
1 Raj Chetty et al., “The Association between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001–2014,” Journal of the American Medical Association 315, no. 16 (April 2016): 1750–1766.
2 James A. Levine, “Poverty and Obesity in the U.S.,” Diabetes 60, no. 11 (November 2011): 2667–2668.
3 S. Saydah and K. Lochner, “Socioeconomic Status and Risk of Diabetes-Related Mortality in the U.S.,” Public Health Reports 125, no. 3 (May–June 2010): 377–388.
4 “Mental Health, Poverty and Development,” World Health Organization, accessed May 26, 2016.
5 G. Lee and M. Carrington, “Tackling Heart Disease and Poverty,” Nursing Health & Science 9, no. 4 (December 2007): 290–294.
6 “Poverty,” Merriam-Webster.
7 Rakesh Kochhar, “What It Means to Be Poor by Global Standards,” Pew Research Center, published July 22, 2015; see also Rakesh Kochhar, “A Global Middle Class Is More Promise than Reality,” Pew Research Center, July 8, 2015.
8 “Poverty Guidelines,” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, January 1, 2015.
9 Tim Henderson, “Poverty Rate Drops in 24 States, DC,” PEW Charitable Trusts, September 18, 2015; “World Bank Forecasts Global Poverty to Fall Below 10% for First Time; Major Hurdles Remain in Goal to End Poverty by 2030,” The World Bank, October 4, 2015; and “2. Background,” World Health Organization, accessed May 26, 2016.
10 Raj Chetty et al., “The Association between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001–2014,” Journal of the American Medical Association 315, no. 16 (2016): 1750–1766.