Unnatural Causes: In Sickness and In Wealth

This documentary was really interesting. I think it did a great job emphasizing the importance of social and economic factors in determining health. The facts and figures they presented made it clear that “wealth is health”, that there are social gradients of health across SES, and that the way to fix the poor health in our country is through social reform.

The experiment where researchers infected the participants with the common cold was a really cool way to show the effects of stress on your immune systems. Participants were infected with a cold virus and when they came back for a follow up, members of minority populations were more likely to have flu symptoms than white participants whose immune systems likely fought off the virus. This makes total sense. When I have a particularly stressful week or two, I often catch a cold because my immune system is weakened at that time. If someone has high stress levels essentially all the time and their stress response is perpetually activated, their immune system is constantly susceptible to illness.

Another experiment I found particularly convincing was the one with the monkeys. The study looked at monkeys who were subordinate and had little control throughout their lifetime (which were typically female). The lack of control lead to higher levels of cortisol, and it was found that the subordinate animals had much more plaque in their arteries because of the stress of social subordination. If the effect of stress response can be found in animals strictly based on the stress associated with lack of control, without being affected by SES, race, class, etc., then the affect on humans with those added factors must be monumental. Not only does a perpetually activated stress response lead to illness, but it actually has an effect on the brain’s ability to develop and make connections.

The video made it clear that social reform is necessary. Education level, income, control/autonomy, or whether your parents owned a home when you were a child all predict health. In order to make our country healthier, we need a more equal distribution of wealth and power. The documentary states that “power is a public health issue” and I think that’s a good way to put it.


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