Democracy is good for heart, increases life expectancy

A study of 170 countries between 1980 and 2016 brings out for the first time the impact of democratic systems on population health

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Friday 15 March 2019
Illustration: Getty Images

2019, in a way, will be a celebration of democracy as 33 countries will elect their governments. These include India, where 90 crore people will exercise their democratic rights. The world’s largest democracy is already in elections mode.

While the quality over democracy will always be debated, a recent study focuses on a little-understood, but much-talked-about issue: Does democracy lead to better human development?  

A transition to democracy has increased life expectancy in countries across the world, the study claims, reducing heart-diseases and, in fact, bringing down transport-related fatalities. But it puts a caveat:  Democracy must be accompanied by free and fair elections.

“HIV-free life expectancy at age 15 years improved significantly during the study period (1970-2015) in countries after they transitioned to democracy, on average by 3 per cent after 10 years,” according to the study.

The research was undertaken by researchers from Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, Department of Health Research and Policy of Stanford University and Bilkent University, Turkey. They used data from 170 countries between 1980 and 2016.

This is the first such study to analyse links between democratic systems and the population health, the researchers claimed. Earlier studies have examined the links between democracy and broad measures like life expectancy at birth and child and infant mortality.

“The improvement in adult health after the transition to democracy is immediate and continues to build over time,” the analysis claims. According to the study, one-point increase in democratic experience reduced mortality over 20 years from cardiovascular disease, other non-communicable diseases, including congenital heart diseases and birth defects.

Now the catch: the analysis factors in the quality of the most basic feature of a democracy, free and fair elections. It finds that without free and fair elections the positive impact of democratic system on population health is not much pronounced.

“… removing free and fair elections from the democratic experience variable resulted in the negative association between that variable and age-standardised mortality from cardiovascular diseases, transport injuries, tuberculosis, and total non-communicable diseases no longer being statistically significant,” according to the report.

Transitioning to democracy or a democratic experience is vital to avert avoidable fatality, given high mortality from cardiovascular diseases, tuberculosis, transport injuries, and other non-communicable diseases, the researchers argue that.

The analysis based on the premise that democracy forces governments to spend more on population health. Given that international donors and aids are stagnating for health-related issues, they argues, the development aids should now focus on promoting democracy.

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