Interpreting Health Statistics

The other day I came across a summary compilation of health care data put out by Optum, which is said to track over a hundred different health metrics across the United States and which shows various regional differences in health problems.

Some of those differences are easy to comprehend, such as the high prevalence of hypertension in the “old South,” because a variety of associated other serious conditions also occur there, including diabetes and high cholesterol, most likely because of a higher level of rural and urban poverty, a diet higher in saturated fats, as well as other factors. Likewise, the incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) occurs in the states with both the highest levels of smoking per capita and the areas with some of the greatest percentages of deep shaft coal mining. For some reason that the Optum researchers can’t determine, lower back pain is the highest in North and South Dakota.

The area that has the highest rate of depression is, according to Optum, the “Rocky Mountain states,” and Optum opines this just might be because people there are just more willing to talk about their depression. I don’t buy it, at least not entirely. When I looked at the map Optum provided, the highest levels of depression coincide, from what I can determine, with the concentrations of LDS population. Now I can see why no health researcher would want to put that in print, but since I’m an economist by training and like looking into numbers, the coincidence was striking.

Also, to me, it makes sense. It’s a well-known and documented fact that the highest rate of Prozac use nationwide is by Utah women, which is hardly surprising, since Mormon women are under incredible social pressure to be perfect in every way, while also deferring, if quietly, to the males in their life. For whatever reason, they have, on average, more than twice the number of children women in other faiths, or no faith, in the U.S. have, yet married Utah women work at about the same percentage as other married women, and, as also documented, for lower wages and salaries than women elsewhere in the United States, and Utah is the state with one of the lowest, if not the lowest, percentage of adult women with a college degree. They’re also expected to be smiling and cheerful all the time.

This suggests to me a great deal of pressure, unrelenting pressure, and unrelenting pressure can often result in depression. This, of course, doesn’t mean all Utah women are depressed, just a higher percentage than women elsewhere in the United States. And, certainly, having more children in a lower-wage state with ten percent of your gross income going to the church might just add some stress to the men as well.

But I can almost guarantee that very few, if any, health professionals will dare to suggest that a particular religion or religion-influenced culture might just have an impact on the incidence of depression.

5 thoughts on “Interpreting Health Statistics”

  1. Alden Ash says:

    I’ve heard one theory (no studies that I know of) that those in the LDS faith don’t self-medicate with alcohol, pot, etc., as a means to deal with life’s issues in general and turn instead to doctor sponsored solutions instead, and this could account for the difference. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    1. Those of the LDS faith who follow the religion’s precepts, and from what I’ve seen an overwhelming majority do, don’t drink alcohol or indulge in hot caffeinated beverages, i.e., tea or coffee. So, in that sense, they certainly don’t “self-medicate.”

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    I wonder if they’re mostly on one side or the other of the mountains. The following has been known to affect people’s attitudes and behavior:

    1. They’re on both sides.

  3. aleciaf says:

    It seems to me I read a report this year that there appears to be a correlation between teen suicides and Mormonism – the rate being something like twice as high as ‘normal’ (whatever that is). I’m not a sociologist, but one would think the LDS stance on gays might have something to do with this, or maybe the depression found in women just starts a lot earlier and is more widespread than Optum report studied. Whichever, it sure flies in the face that the LDS presents to the world.

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