Health and GDP

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Apr 28, 2011    •    TIME TO READ: 1 minute

We are taller, healthier, heavier, and living longer. In 1790, a typical Frenchman weighed 110 pounds. Now, the scale says 170. That 60-pound difference relates to a lot more than food.

According to a new book from Nobel prize winning economist Robert Fogel and several colleagues, since 1700, as one generation became healthier and stronger, so too were their children. As the authors explain in their first chapter, “…increased health and longevity enable the members of that next generation to work harder and longer and to create the resources which can then, in their turn, be used to assist the next, and succeeding, generations to prosper.” (p. 2 in an Amazon preview)

Connecting what we look like to what we have achieved is a fascinating thesis. Simple and yet complex, the book talks about height and weight and food and productivity, economics, biology, and technology. The NY Times tells us that it presents a wealth of data, potentially controversial conclusions, and implications for foreign aid. The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700 will be available during May. 

The Economic Lesson

Called anthropometric history, the history of human height has become an economic field of study. Economists use height data to form hypotheses about GDP.

An Economic Question: During the 1930s, a typical life span was close to 60 years. Now, many of us will approach 80 and beyond. A result and a cause of increasing longevity, GDP positively interacted with better health. Now though, with baby boomers living longer, will our GDP growth diminish?

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