Fighting Families Fall Ill (5/19/14)
The Family That Stays Together…
The “classic” film “Bonnie and Clyde” nearly did not get made. Film producers at Warner Brothers could not understand why they should unleash onto the public a movie whose romantic leads’ (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway) main occupation was ultraviolently killing bank managers and police.
Warren Beatty saved the day. He explained that “Bonnie and Clyde” would act as an “homage” to the great gangster Warner Brothers movies from the 1930s. After explaining to the stunned executives what “homage” meant, the next worry was how to encapsulate the films’ “message” in a short advertising phrase. One studio employee supposedly came up with the most memorable line – “the family that slays together, stays together.”
Ultimately it was not used to sell the film.
But there are many forms of conflict and violence within families. And as a recent Danish study shows, the effects on mortality are high – on both young and middle aged people. The increase in deaths was particularly afflictive of men, and was not related to internal violence involving guns, fists, or knives (we’re talking Denmark here.) Rather, it was the emotional stress brought on by family argument and quarrel that appeared to shorten lives.
It was paid for by the Danish government to find out what the effects of family discord are on their health and economic lives. About 10,000 people aged 36 -52 were followed closely for years.
What Was Found?
In families where the feuding and quarreling was above average, the death rate went up by 50-100%, controlling for the usual suspect variables – health status, drinking, smoking and the like.
Who Was Affected Most?
Unemployed men. Their death rates went up two to three times.
Why Were They More Afflicted?
In most studies of this sort, men prove less hardy than women. The reasons are many, ranging from social mores and roles to greater tendencies to neglect personal health. At this stage, probably many of the reasons are unknown or unthought.
No physiological studies were done on this population. However, there are hints as to how emotional stress biological shortens survival. One recent example – an American study found that young kids who were bullied had high levels of C reactive protein, one of many inflammatory markers. Excessive inflammation, particularly all over the body, is not good for you.
Interestingly, the bullies had C reactive proteins levels lower than that of normals.
Why Was Unemployment Particularly Significant?
Because if there is a place where unemployment benefits are extensive and family security most guaranteed by the state, it might be Denmark. For years there have been many comments by pundits and politicians that Danish unemployment benefits are too lavish, unemployment holds little stigma, and the “easy life” of the unemployed directly undercut people’s incentive to work.
Yet even in a place like Denmark, unemployed men plus family rancor = a death rate two to three times higher. And this is a country where health care is essentially free, education and job training are heavily supported and housing and basic costs of living secure.
The “Great Recession” that started in 2007, moving on to the ongoing fiscal crisis of 2008, put a lot of Americans out of work.
Many still are. Many will remain that way. At this point, the long term unemployed are about three times as numerous as 2007.
The employment participation rate has now gone down to levels not seen in several decades. At least ten million Americans lost their jobs. Many will remain unemployed for the rest of their lives.
Few feel secure.
As for long term benefits, long term unemployment payments are kaput. Housing resources are often elusive or non-existent. Some states offer Medicaid, though sometimes only with a series of bewildering rules. Other states hardly offer any health benefits to the unemployed, especially if they have never become parents; rules favor those with kids.
Economists usually point to the direct costs of unemployment. They tend to overlook the wider ramifications of being out of work for years.
Which includes higher death rates, from a multitude of causes. The unemployed experience more heart attacks and strokes, more depression and suicide.
And more quarrelsome families. Here the effects march well beyond the unemployed on to their spouses, children, friends and communities. The results include worsened long term health – physical, mental and social – of the many people involved.
Unemployment can rot people’s soul. But family fighting can do the same.
The “social support” literatures goes back to the 1960’s and1970’s, especially the famous Berkman-Syme study of 1979. The more social connections one has, the less heart attacks and strokes, depression, even tumors.
The opposite also appears to be true. People who fight within their families die faster and earlier. Communities riven by social conflict experience considerably worse health.
And unemployment magnifies those results.
The family that slays together does not stay together. When people fight with the people they love – or live with – their health suffers.
And so does the health of the community of which they are a part.
Similarly, economic dislocations have multiple health and social effects – and cost a lot of money.
For all these factors work together. Social health markedly improves physical and mental health.
Another thing for politicians to consider when they look at economic policies – and who wins and who loses.
The losses keep coming.
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