Unnatural Causes

PBS is currently running a fascinating documentary called Unnatural Causes which explores the racial and socioeconomic inequalities in health. Do we all have an equal chance for health? Is this inequality making us sicker? These are the questions that build the foundation for this seven-part documentary that looks at the root causes of health and illness and goes beyond popular conceptions linking health to medical care and explores evidence of more powerful determinants such as the social conditions in which we are born, live and work.

We spend more than twice the average rich country spends per person on medical care. Yet we have among the worst disease outcomes of any industrialized nation – and the greatest health inequities. At every step down the socio-economic ladder, African Americans, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders often fare worse than their white counterparts. The unequal distribution of social conditions – and their health consequences – are not natural or inevitable. They are the result of choices that we as a community, as states, and as a nation have made, and can make differently. Our international health status has fallen radically in the last few decades. In 1980, we ranked 14th in life expectancy; by 2007, we had fallen to 29th. [Link]

One issue that is particularly interesting is how racism adversely impacts an individual’s and ultimately an entire community’s health. Researchers are circling in on a way to explain the presence of worse health outcomes among minorities and suggest that the chronic stress of racism can be embedded in the body, taking a heavy toll on people of color. The researchers suggest that when you have a reaction to a situation in your life that makes you anxious or gets you stressed out, you not only have a psychological or emotional reaction but you also have a biological reaction. If that stress is chronic, over time it creates wear and tear on your body’s organs and systems and thus, causing illness. Another issue of interest is the fact that immigrants, who are often poorer, tend to be healthier than the average American. However, the longer they live here, the worse their relative health becomes, even as their economic status improves. Children of immigrants are particularly at risk for obesity, heart disease, and mental illness. The documentary explores what it is about new immigrant communities that shield people from poor health and how this protective shield erodes over time.

Both these issues are relevant to the Punjabi Sikh community. It’s important to look at the social conditions as mentioned in this documentary to help us understand the high rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental illness that are impacting our community.

Unnatural Causes airs on PBS on Thursdays through April 17th.

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