Do we live in a country where a healthy lifestyle is getting too cost-prohibitive?
Sometimes it seems that way, especially when one harkens back to the “good ol’ days” when Americans “lived off the land”—simpler times when we didn’t have TV or advertisements or Twinkies, and food came out of farm and garden just beyond the back door. Life, we’re tempted to espouse, was better back then.
(Sure, except for minor details like plague, polio, dysentery, etc.)
"How do we live a long and healthy life?” has always been a central issue for mankind. If you take it for granted that recent advancements in medicine, as well as a growing awareness of the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise, have created a longer lifespan for the average American, think again: new research is showing that, when broken down by income demographics, there is a growing disparity between the lifespans of people on opposite ends of the income spectrum.
Economists at the Brookings Institute released a report recently in which they found, among other things, that there is now a 14-year difference in life expectancy between the top 10 percent and bottom 10 percent of wage earners. The average age (for males) in the top 10 percent is 87.2, but only 73.6 for the bottom 10 percent. Thirty years ago, this same longevity gap was only about 6 years.
As recently highlighted in the New York Times by reporter Sabrina Tavernise:
The growing longevity gap means that benefits like Social Security are paid out even more disproportionately to the better-off because they are around for more years to collect them. Last summer, the National Academy of Sciences convened a panel of experts to study the implications. It concluded that disparate life expectancies are making the country’s biggest entitlement programs, like Social Security and Medicare, increasingly unfair to the poor and suggested officials consider policy changes to address the problem.
The problem of people with fewer resources dying sooner will not abate without a concerted effort. The solutions are far from simple, and must include all facets of society: changes in the political, technological, agricultural, medicinal, healthcare, environmental realms, and more, are needed.
But what if more of the “timeless truths” of a healthy lifestyle —long-touted by the health and wellness community—are practiced on a larger scale.
Take meditation, for instance. Practicing mindfulness is all the rage amongst business moguls and hipsters alike. Among certain demographics it is becoming easier and easier to learn and practice. As we’ve already discussed here, here, here and here (can you tell Wellness Warrior likes this subject?), a plethora of research shows the health benefits of meditation. Longevity studies show that it can extend the life of our telomeres, mitigate psychological and chromosomal stress, decrease inflammation increase energy metabolism, increase the brain’s neuroplasticity and ease stress and anxiety which are all outcomes that can directly associate with longer life.
And it’s free.
Eating healthy food (not so free!) can add years to the lives of those of us who can afford it. Studies sprout up every week detailing the life-lengthening benefits of eating fresh vegetables and minimally processed foods. Studying (and aspiring to) the life-sustaining habits of centenarians who live in Blue Zones, in which their cultures ascribe to a diet counter to the commodified fast-food culture in our country, are irrefutable.
The egalitarian tools of wellness are many, and are directly correlated with longer, healthier, happier lives. They don’t require cutting-edge research or technology, special access to outlandish facilities, or a government supported industry to enact.
Sure, some come with a hefty price tag. At $10-$20 a class, yoga or meditation instruction is not in the budget of a family with an average American income of around $53K. But watching instructional yoga videos on YouTube is free (outside of the cost of your internet connection). And although eating fresh is not necessarily expensive, the time it takes to shop, chop, cook and and clean adds up, especially when you are working long hours for low-income wages. A lack of time and a poor diet can team up to make an exercise regime seem nearly impossible.
We are now at a juncture in the U.S. where we can no longer ignore (ethically or economically) the widening gap between the wellness “haves” and “have-nots.” Let’s continue to ask the question of the new wellness movement: “How can we ensure that everyone has access to a long and healthy life?” And then...take action. For example: support local food banks; volunteer with a local "gleaning" group that harvests fruit on private property (here's one way you can get started); and if you're really good at some wellness skill or two, get out and volunteer-teach at local community centers. Value? Priceless!
PHOTO: via flickr
- Disparity in Life Spans of the Rich and the Poor Is Growing via New York Times
- The unique brain anatomy of meditation practitioners: alterations in cortical gyrification via Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
- Loving-Kindness Meditation practice associated with longer telomeres in women via PubMed
- Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators via Stanford Medicine
- Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways via Plos One
- Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress via Harvard Medicine
- Mediterranean diet and telomere length in Nurses’ Health Study: population based cohort study via British Medical Journal
- Eating To Break 100: Longevity Diet Tips From The Blue Zones via NPR
- Physical Activity and Health via CDC
- The Effects of a Hatha Yoga Intervention on Facets of Distress Tolerance via PubMed
- Let's Glean! USDA toolkit via USDA