The Primal Mind

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Inequality Makes You Sick

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Reviews by Peter G. Prontzos

The Telomere Effect:
A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer
By Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel
Grand Central Publishing, January 2017

The Broken Ladder:
How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die
By Keith Payne, Viking, May 2017

In our hyper-individualistic and competitive culture, the dominant ideology claims each person is, overall, the master of their fate. As one Republican candidate for the 2012 U.S. presidency put it, if you are poor, “Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks…. blame yourself.”

Such views are not only heartless, they are demonstrably unscientific. As Dennis Raphael, a professor of health policy and equity at York University, explained (CCPA Monitor, November 2008): the “[s]ocial determinants of health are the primary determinants of whether individuals stay healthy or become ill.” They also decide “the extent to which a person possesses the physical, social, and personal resources to identify and achieve personal aspirations, satisfy needs, and cope with the environment.”

One of the most dramatic breakthroughs in health psychology and development is the discovery of the importance of telomeres, “repeating segments of non-coding DNA that live at the ends of your chromosomes”. Elizabeth Blackburn, who shared a Nobel Prize in 2009 for her research into telomeres, describes the fascinating process in her new book, co-authored by her colleague at the University of California (San Francisco), health psychologist Elissa Epel. In The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach To Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, Blackburn and Epel explain that, “aging is a dynamic process that can be accelerated or slowed, and in some aspects even reversed.” One key to aging is our telomeres, which normally get shorter each time a cell divides. However, under the right circumstances, our telomeres may actually get longer—and that can markedly improve a person’s health.

In the first part of the book we get a guide to the basics of aging, telomeres, and telomerase – an enzyme that can replenish telomeres. The second part describes how factors like stress, types of thinking and negative feelings can all affect the heath of your telomeres (and your genes). The authors provide a way for the reader to assess their own personal situation, and offer some “stress-reducing techniques shown to boost telomere maintenance.” Exercise, diet and metabolism are covered in more detail in part three, along with other methods for self-improvement. But it is in part four that the societal implications of this research become frighteningly clear.

In one chapter in this section, “Outside In: The Social World Shapes Your Telomeres,” the authors outline how social factors determine health outcomes, for better or worse. “People in neighborhoods with low social cohesion and who live in fear of crime have greater cellular aging,” while those who have the opportunity to spend more time in nature have lower levels of stress and the stress hormone cortisol.
Not surprisingly, higher exposure to toxic gases like carbon monoxide, and to pesticides, air pollution and dangerous chemicals at work, increases the risk to a person’s telomeres, with the negative consequences this can have for their chances to develop cancer and other deadly illnesses.

Cellular aging can even begin in the womb, linked to nutrient consumption and stress levels, and not just on the mother’s side. “[B]oth parents’ telomeres—at whatever length they are at the time of conception in the egg and sperm—are passed on to the developing baby (a form of epigenetics).”

The consequences of these findings are profound. Notably, we can now say the unhealthy effects of poverty, stress, inequality and similar social problems can be biologically embedded in our cells and passed on to our children, and even our grandchildren, so that “it is possible for the effects of social disadvantage to accumulated over the generations.” Adverse childhood events are not only psychologically damaging, they may play a part in shortening one’s telomeres, especially if the traumas are severe and/or continuous.

Hope lies partly in our body’s ability to heal itself. “Our genes are like computer hardware: we cannot change them. Our epigenome, of which telomeres are a part, is like software,” say Blackburn and Epel. We may be able to rewrite the program.

We know enough about the causes of both mental and physical illness to go beyond healing, to prevent most damage from happening in the first place. In their Telomere Manifesto, Blackburn and Epel list the steps we could take, today, to protect everyone: improve prenatal care, protect children from violence and other traumas, reduce inequality, eliminate toxins, and make sure everyone has access to fresh and healthy food.


In 2016, Oxfam made an almost unbelievable announcement: the richest 62 people in the world had as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population. But relatively speaking, those were good days for inequality. Oxfam’s follow-up report, released earlier this year, found that today just eight people are worth as much as the planet’s poorest 3.6 billion.

It’s not easy to put this wealth gap into perspective—the numbers are so enormous. But consider that you could easily fit those eight rich people into one of their (perhaps numerous) private jets, while there are about a billion people living across North, Central and South America. Yes, eight people own more wealth than three times the population of the entire Western Hemisphere.

Never has there been such inequality in the world. And as Keith Payne shows in his important new book, The Broken Ladder, it is deeply affecting how we live with each other and think about our fellow humans.

Payne, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, begins his book by showing how we (and our primate cousins) are hard-wired to react to perceptions of relative status and inequality. At the same time, we are prone to “fundamental attribution errors,” notably the assumption that another person’s successes and failures are mostly their own doing.

In 2012, note Payne, the average CEO in the U.S. “earned” about 350 times the average workers’ income. Attempts to justify such disparities are usually based on the claim that these executives add more value to their corporations than regular workers—another “fundamental attribution error” if I’ve ever seen one. Do these CEOs work 350 times harder than the average employee? Are 350 times smarter? Apparently not. “In one comprehensive analysis of thousands of corporations over nearly two decades…only about 5 per cent of the performance differences…could be attributed to the CEO,” writes Payne.

“The college graduate is smart. The drug addict is weak willed. The person shopping with food stamps is lazy,” writes Payne, listing some of those assumptions, which are frequently expressed openly in conservative dialogue but can linger in even the most progressive minds. “One reason it is so prevalent is that it is simply easier to think about people than situations.”

This social problem was dramatically revealed in Philip Zimbardo’s (in)famous “Stanford Prison Experiment”, in which college students were randomly assigned to be either “guards” or “inmates” in a pretend jail. The experiment had to be ended early because normal young people were so negatively affected by their roles: “guards” became brutal and even sadistic, “prisoners” were traumatized.

As Payne underlines, most attitudes and actions are, most of the time, “shaped by particular situations” rather than by individual disposition. Moreover – most of the time – we not only have very little control of situations, but almost no control over our thoughts and feelings, 99% of which are unconscious to begin with.

“Emotion can be even more powerful than thoughts,” writes Payne, while documenting how the constant psychological stress of poverty, racism and inequality can cause one’s body to get stuck in fight-or-flight mode, sometimes “for weeks, months, or years.” And that very unhealthy state can lead to inflammation, heart attacks and many other dangerous medical conditions.

The influential Whitehall study of British civil servants exposed a dramatic case of this phenomenon in action. There is a very clear hierarchy of power in the U.K. civil service, writes Payne, such that “even the difference between the highest-status government officials and those just one rung below was linked to increased mortality,” among other medical problems. These differences exist even though all of the subjects “have decent government jobs and the salaries, health insurance, pensions, and other benefits that are associated with them.”

“The workplace is where most people experience inequality most directly on a daily basis,” adds Payne, an observation that would not have surprised Karl Marx.

The unhealthy consequences of inequality hold true around the world. For example, citing research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, from their ground-breaking book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone, Payne points out that the most economically equal developed countries (Japan, Sweden and Norway) have fewer health and social problems than those countries with the greatest inequality. At the top (or bottom) of the scale is the United States, which has both the most inequality and is also the most unhealthy of all developed countries.

“For at least 40 years, research evidence has been accumulating that societies with larger income differences between rich and poor tend to have worse health and higher homicide rates,” write Wilkinson and Pickett in a study updating “The Spirit Level” that was just published in The Lancet. “More recently, this has been contextualized by findings that more unequal societies not only have higher rates of poor health and violence, but also of other outcomes that tend to be worse lower down the social ladder, including teenage births, lower math and literacy scores, obesity, and imprisonment.”

To sum up: inequality is not only harmful to almost everyone, but there is no justification for allowing it to continue.

As Social Ecologist Murray Bookchin pointed out decades ago—confirmed again and again by Oxfam’s stunning inequality reports—we have more than enough wealth and knowledge to provide everyone with a healthy social and natural environment. If, that is, we make this goal a political imperative.


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The Inequality Makes You Sick by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.

Written by Peter

June 19th, 2017 at 2:02 am

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