The strong observable correlation between health and economic growth is crucial for economic development and sustained well-being, but the underlying causality and mechanisms are difficult to conceptualize. Three issues are of central concern. First, assessing and disentangling causality between health and economic growth are empirically challenging. Second, the relation between health and economic growth changes over the process of economic development. In less developed countries, poor health often reduces labor force participation, particularly among women, and deters investments in education such that fertility stays high and the economy remains trapped in a stagnation equilibrium. By contrast, in more developed countries, health investments primarily lead to rising longevity, which may not significantly affect labor force participation and workforce productivity. Third, different dimensions of health (mortality vs. morbidity, children’s and women’s health, and health at older ages) relate to different economic effects. By changing the duration and riskiness of the life course, mortality affects individual investment choices, whereas morbidity relates more directly to work productivity and education. Children’s health affects their education and has long-lasting implications for labor force participation and productivity later in life. Women’s health is associated with substantial intergenerational spillover effects and influences women’s empowerment and fertility decisions. Finally, health at older ages has implications for retirement and care.
David E. Bloom, Michael Kuhn, and Klaus Prettner
Anthropometrics is a research program that explores the extent to which economic processes affect human biological processes using height and weight as markers. This agenda differs from health economics in the sense that instead of studying diseases or longevity, macro manifestations of well-being, it focuses on cellular-level processes that determine the extent to which the organism thrives in its socio-economic and epidemiological environment. Thus, anthropometric indicators are used as a proxy measure for the biological standard of living as complements to conventional measures based on monetary units. Using physical stature as a marker, we enabled the profession to learn about the well-being of children and youth for whom market-generated monetary data are not abundant even in contemporary societies. It is now clear that economic transformations such as the onset of the Industrial Revolution and modern economic growth were accompanied by negative externalities that were hitherto unknown. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that the Welfare States of Western and Northern Europe take better care of the biological needs of their citizens than the market-oriented health-care system of the United States. Obesity has reached pandemic proportions in the United States affecting 40% of the population. It is fostered by a sedentary and harried lifestyle, by the diminution in self-control, the spread of labor-saving technologies, and the rise of instant gratification characteristic of post-industrial society. The spread of television and a fast-food culture in the 1950s were watershed developments in this regard that accelerated the process. Obesity poses a serious health risk including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some types of cancer and its cost reaches $150 billion per annum in the United States or about $1,400 per capita. We conclude that the economy influences not only mortality and health but reaches bone-deep into the cellular level of the human organism. In other words, the economy is inextricably intertwined with human biological processes.