My friend Britt and I were eating Chimney Cakes and thumbing through the Economist’s 2013 World Almanac (Good Times. Seriously). As we were looking through countries, I came across the average life expectancy of males and females in the US and Romania (since Chimney Cakes are a Transylvania treat, and thus Romanian).
“I have a theory,” Britt said, “that countries with higher GDP have a shorter life expectancy, since they essentially work themselves to death.” I was intrigued; You can argue that her theory makes sense – as we work harder, especially in the manual labor and service industries, we will wear our bodies out sooner. But then you can argue the opposite, that with more income and money, countries can provide better health care, improved sanitation, and other benefits that would extend life. I wondered which was right.
So I spent some time digging up statistics, specifically what is the GDP per person for 21 countries with the longest life expectancy and 18 with the shortest life expectancy, and what the average life expectancy was for each.
Here is a graph showing, for all countries, the relationship between life expectancy (in years on the right axis) and the GDP per person for each country (in dollars on the bottom axis). The first thing you notice is, we actually have two divergent groups. Individuals in poorer countries live significantly shorter lives compared to those in wealthy countries. In addition, the GDP scales are not even close: All countries in the ‘wealthy’ category had GDPs over $30,000 per person, with some in the high $80,000 per person. The highest GDP per person for the poor countries was $790. Trying to treat them as one group won’t make sense. If we were to correlate these, the relationship would just be a straight line, from the dots on the lower left to the dots at the upper right. That doesn’t help much, for we know that at a certain point, it is better live in a wealthier country than a poorer country.
So we have to break apart the groups. Below is the graph for the poor countries.
And here is the graph for the wealthy countries.
Immediately, we see that the trends are opposite. That is, for poorer countries, as GDP per person increases, life expectancy does too. However, for the wealthier countries, it is the opposite: As GDP per person increases, then life expectancy drops.
This is a quick and dirty analysis, and a true economist could do so much more with better (and more) data. This does suggest, though, that there is a price to pay when countries start to pump up their GDP. The question is not how to get the most work from your population, but how to get as much as you can – and keep them healthy and living long, happy, lives.