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Inequality Is Bad for Your Health

People who feel they are treated unfairly have physiological markers of elevated stress.

It's increasingly clear that the stress of being black in a white-dominated society takes a toll on one's health—even if you don't get kidnapped by a mad neurosurgeon who covets your brain. However, new research suggests the link between inequality and stress isn't limited to African Americans.

In a study featuring a group of American twins—almost all of them white—researchers found a link between perceived inequality and a variety of bodily stress responses. Such responses, when sustained over long periods of time, have been widely linked to a wide range of health problems.

"Perceived inequality appears to be a robust predictor of allostatic load, a comprehensive indicator of stress exposure," Joseph Schwartz of the University of Nebraska–Omaha writes in the journal Social Science and Medicine. "These findings, if replicated, have potentially important implications."

Don't stint on funding for stress-reduction programs; they could pay off handsomely.

The study featured 290 same-sex twins who participated in the Survey of Midlife Development in the United States. Allostatic load—essentially, stress-induced wear and tear on the body—was assessed using 24 biomarkers, including heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose, inflammation, adrenal activity, heart-rate variability, and cortisol.

Their perceptions of unequal treatment were derived from their answers to nine questions during two interviews. They were presented with statements such as "You were treated with less courtesy than others," and responded on a scale of one (never) to four (often).

"Twins who experienced greater overall levels of inequality also had greater overall levels of allostatic load compared to their co-twin," Schwartz reports. Importantly, this held true after taking into account a variety of lifestyle and demographic factors known to influence health, including their levels of drinking, smoking, and exercising.

The results demonstrate "a potential pathway in which environmental stressors may have long-term physical health consequences," he concludes.

At a time when political leaders are arguing about the cost of health coverage, this research offers a couple of creative prescriptions. Don't stint on funding for stress-reduction programs; they could pay off handsomely.

And consider pursuing policies that promote equality for all Americans. You won't just have a fairer society—you'll also have a healthier one.