Story By:  Ana MarjanovicSub-EditorMichael Leidig, Agency:  Newsflash

A new study claims that counties that voted for Democratic presidential candidates from 2000 to 2016 had lower death rates than residents of counties that voted for Republicans.

Published in the British Medical Journal, the study shows that the difference in death rates between Democratic and Republican counties increased by a factor of more than six times from 2001 to 2019.

This was especially true among white Americans, and was driven by deaths caused by cancer, chronic lung disease, heart disease, suicide, drug overdoses and unintentional injuries.

The researchers, led by Dr Haider J. Wairrach of Harvard University, concluded: “Overall, our finding that Democratic counties have experienced steeper declines in mortality than Republican counties over the past two decades builds upon previous evidence suggesting that more liberal policies, laws, and regulations may be associated with better health outcomes.”

However, they say more research is needed to understand why what they call a “widening difference in mortality rates between Republican and Democratic counties” so as to inform health policy strategies.

The period under study embraced the five presidential elections from 2000 to 2019, and used data for 99.8 per cent of the U.S. population.

According to the authors, earlier studies supposedly show that counties, where Republican presidential candidates are successful, tend to have worse health. They concluded: “The mortality gap in Republican voting counties compared with Democratic voting counties has grown over time, especially for white populations, and that gap began to widen after 2008.”

It was in 2008 that Barack Obama was elected to the presidency.

However, the researchers cautioned that the reason for the trends in death rates, and the conditions leading to them in Democratic and Republican counties, remains unknown.

Over the period examined, the researchers found that male and female residents of Democratic counties experienced both lower mortality rates and twice the relative decrease in mortality rates than males and females in Republican counties.

Black Americans, according to the study, had lower mortality rates in Democratic counties.

However, the mortality gap between white Americans living in Democratic counties experienced 15 per cent lower mortality rates in 2019 than whites in Republican counties compared with just 3 per cent in 2001.

Because they concluded that rural counties that voted for Republicans had the least improvement during the period studied, and had the highest death rates, the researchers claimed that politics play an important role in the growing gap in mortality rates between city and country dwellers.

Using data derived from the Georgia-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which are based on county-level information on presidential elections for the four years that followed each presidential election in November.

Going over the last twenty years, the researchers also analyzed counties that had voted exclusively Republican or Democrat using state governor election results as opposed to presidential elections.

The researchers showed that mortality in Democratic counties dropped from 850 to 664 per 100,000 residents from 2001 to 2019, in other words by 22 per cent. In Republican counties, however, it dropped by only 11 per cent in Republican counties, or from 867 to 771 per 100,000 residents.

According to the study, therefore, there was a differential in death rates for Democratic and Republican counties that increased by 541 per cent, or 16.7 per 100,000 in 2001 to 107 deaths per 100,000 in 2019.

Noting that this was an observational study, the authors wrote issues such health, social and economic issues may also motivate voters to prefer one party over another, even while they were confident with their results.

In an op-ed cited in the study, Dr Steven Woolf – a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and senior advisor to the Center for American Progress, who was not a co-author of the study – wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Society that residents of New York had a lower life expectancy than people in Oklahoma in 1990. By 2016, however, New York had the third-highest life expectancy in the U.S. while Oklahoma had sunk to 45th.

“Blue” states are those such as New York and California that predictably vote for Democratic presidential candidates, while “red” states such as Oklahoma and Mississippi are reliably Republican.

Woolf feared that the gap in mortality rates may continue to grow between red and blue states, while suggesting that conservative legislation regarding food labeling, abortion, and sexual minorities may actually cause negative health outcomes.

While calling for health professionals to depart from custom and pay more attention to laws and legislative proposals in “red” states, Woolf wrote: “Although scientific literature has traditionally avoided discussing politics, the growing influence of partisan affiliation on policies affecting health makes this covariate an increasingly important subject of study.”

The Center for American Progress was founded by John Podesta, who served President Bill Clinton and was election campaign chairman for failed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.