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LONDON (Reuters) - The suggestion by one of President Barack Obama's key economic advisers that wealthier nations are also healthier is not necessarily true, according to a team of British social scientists.
The research team studied data from 22 countries over almost 50 years to test the principle that stimulating economic growth automatically improves levels of public health, particularly in the developing world.
Their findings suggest the idea is over-simplistic, they said, and in some cases the health of a population has worsened even as the country's national income was rising.
This was because issues of poverty and inequality were ignored by policymakers more worried about economic growth, a strategy that may ultimately cost lives, the researchers said.
"The 'wealthier is healthier' argument is the idea that if you have economic growth, you are acquiring the resources that will help society's health to improve as a whole," said Larry King, of Cambridge University's sociology department, whose study was published in the journal Social Science and Medicine.
"Our study found that wealth is not enough. If policymakers want to improve health, they need to look more closely at the impact that they are having on individual living standards."
King said the link between economic growth and improving public health was first made in an influential paper in 1996 co-authored by Larry Summers, now director of the National Economic Council in the United States and a leading presidential adviser.
Since then it has been a "guiding formula" for both health ministries and many of the global financial bodies that support international development.
The Cambridge-led research team looked at the effects of poverty and inequality in 22 Latin American countries from 1960 to 2007. Their study analyzed three standard measures of public health -- life expectancy, infant mortality rates and tuberculosis mortality rates -- against gross domestic product (GDP) per capita as a measure of economic growth.
Initial results appeared to vindicate the traditional theory, the researchers said. They showed that each one percent rise in GDP was linked to a 1.2 percent reduction in infant death rates and an increase in life expectancy of about 22 days.
But when the relationship between wealth and health was examined across the entire period, and including the distribution of wealth, a different pattern emerged.
During periods when inequality widened, for example, the study found that a 1 percent rise in GDP led to a lower decrease in infant death rates of just 0.9 percent, and had no effect at all on tuberculosis (TB) mortality rates or life expectancy.
When inequality in the same countries was narrowing, a rise in wealth had a much larger effect, the study found. At these times, a one percent increase in GDP was linked to a 1.5 percent fall in child death rates, a 1.8 percent drop in TB death rates, and an increase in average life expectancy of 51 days.
"The current economic crisis has led to great concern among politicians, central banks and international financial organizations for restoring high rates of growth," King said.
"According to these results, focusing on growth rather than poverty reduction and reducing inequality may lead to substantial loss of life."
Editing by Tim Pearce