The numbers are shocking: The United States spends almost twice per person on medical care than any other nation, but Americans' life expectancy ranks 30th, just underneath Costa Ricans'. Our infant mortality rate is tied with Hungary, Poland and Slovakia for next to last among the industrialized nations. Meanwhile, illness costs American business $260 billion a year in lost productivity.
Those statistics are among the facts being brought to light in the upcoming documentary series "Unnatural Causes-Is Inequality Making Us Sick?," produced by California Newsreel. The four-hour series will be released as a DVD this fall and will air on PBS next spring, presented by the National Minority Consortia of public television.
The documentary sheds light on the root causes of the differences in life expectancy among America's social classes, showing that poor Americans die on average five years earlier than middle-class citizens, who die three years sooner than the rich.
And at every class level, African Americans fare worse than whites. In many cases so do other racial and ethnic groups.
Larry Adelman, creator and executive producer of "Unnatural Causes," who previewed scenes from the documentary at APA's 2007 Annual Convention, called the documentary a stepping stone that he hopes will enlarge the national debate on our glaring health inequities.
"As you're going to see, this isn't 'Sicko,'" said Adelman, referring to the Michael Moore documentary released earlier this year. "'Sicko' is about our repair shops, where we go when our bodies break down. Instead, this series asks what is causing our bodies to break down in the first place, and why the wear and tear is so differentially distributed both by race and by class?"
When the researchers began their work for the series, they assumed that a person's health was determined by three looming factors: health care, genes and behaviors. They were surprised to learn that these "big three" explained only part of the picture, with the social circumstances in which we are born, live and work having profound consequences for health and well-being, said Adelman.
The series focuses on the essential question of how inequities in the rest of our lives, in the jobs we do, the money we make, the neighborhoods we live in, the schools we attend, get under our skin and affect our physiology as surely as germs and viruses, he said.
"If we're going to improve our nation's health, we have to understand that these are just as much health issues as diet, smoking and exercise," he said.
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