Past research has shown that people living in ‘blue states’ — those that are controlled by Democratic lawmakers — have higher marks on almost every indicator of health than their counterparts living in ‘red states’. While most of the discrepancy between conservative- and liberal-leaning states can be attributed to differences in social-, economic-, and and healthcare policies, a new study suggests that the political beliefs of voters themselves could account for some of this divide.
The study, conducted by researchers the Harvard School of Public Health and the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, found that self-identified conservatives and moderates tend to die earlier than liberals. However, political party affiliation (i.e., identifying with either the Democratic or Republican party) did not seem to influence mortality, with members of both parties sharing similar times to death, according to the analysis.
The findings, published this week in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, offer new insight into the complex relationship between political identity and health.
While a number of studies have investigated this relationship, most have looked only at political ideology or party affiliation, treating the two concepts as interchangeable. “Previous studies have only looked at one or the other,” lead researcher Dr. Roman Pabayo told the LA Times. “I wanted to see if there was a relationship between those two.”
Dr. Pabayo said past research in this area has also been limited by the use of subjective indicators to measure health status — for instance, self-reported health is a common measure. He expressed concern that subjective assessment of political ideology could influence the results of subjective assessments of health, particularly in cross-sectional studies — a research design that only examines data from a single point in time.
Politics and mortality
To address these limitations, Dr. Pabayo’s team conducted an analysis that included indicators of political affiliation and political ideology, as well as both subjective measures of health (self-rated health) and more objective measures (risk of early mortality).
The researchers analyzed data on 32,830 people who participated in the General Social Survey-National Death Index between 1976 and 2008. This dataset is comprised of interviews conducted in person, utilizing a core set of questions asked each year to a different set of participants.
By the end of the follow-up period (on Dec. 31, 2008), a total of 28.2 percent of participants had died. Political affiliation didn’t seem to play much a role in the risk of early death: there was no difference in time-to-death between participants affiliated with the Democrat and Republican parties, although participants who described themselves as “independents” were somewhat less likely to die during the study period.
In contrast, political ideology was strongly associated with mortality: participants identifying as liberal were significantly (about 6 percent) less likely to die early compared with moderates or conservatives. This finding remained the same after adjusting the data for individual variables such as age, sex, education and household income.
“Although researchers argue that the association between political party affiliation and political ideology, and health is explained by sociodemographic characteristics, associations were held when we controlled for these variables,” the authors write. They also found that the results could not be explained by proposed mediators such as self-reported happiness.
Political identity ‘can be seen as markers of latent attitudes, values, and beliefs’
Interpretations of the findings should be made with caution, the authors state. The study is limited due to time-varying predictors such as political beliefs and attitudes only being measured at the baseline.
The authors suggest that future research could investigate possible interactions between political party affiliation or ideology and state-level characteristics – examining the association between risk for mortality and being a Republican in a state that is predominantly Democrat, for example.
“Further research is required in order to determine the potential role of attitudes, beliefs and behaviors in the relationship between political party affiliation and political ideology with time to death,” they conclude.
Of course, these results do not show a causal relationship, nor do they explain why self-described liberals live longer than their more conservative counterparts. The most likely explanation is that political affiliation and ideology are actually markers (or, proxy variables) for other underlying factors that directly influence health.
“Political beliefs could be seen as markers of latent attitudes, values, and beliefs, such as religiosity, social and civic participation and individual responsibility, which in turn could have positive influences on health,” the authors write. “For example, liberals might be more likely to have stronger ties to those around them and to their community. Social cohesion has shown to be related to behaviors and health outcomes.”
… But just to be safe, you should probably consider liberalism 🙂