The relationships between democratic experience, adult health, and cause-specific mortality in 170 countries between 1980 and 2016: an observational analysis

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The Lancet
Apr 20, 2019 Volume 393 Number 10181 p1569-1668, e38
https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/issue/current
Articles
The relationships between democratic experience, adult health, and cause-specific mortality in 170 countries between 1980 and 2016: an observational analysis
Thomas J Bollyky, Tara Templin, Matthew Cohen, Diana Schoder, Joseph L Dieleman, Simon Wigley
Open Access
Summary
Background
Previous analyses of democracy and population health have focused on broad measures, such as life expectancy at birth and child and infant mortality, and have shown some contradictory results. We used a panel of data spanning 170 countries to assess the association between democracy and cause-specific mortality and explore the pathways connecting democratic rule to health gains.

Methods
We extracted cause-specific mortality and HIV-free life expectancy estimates from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2016 and information on regime type from the Varieties of Democracy project. These data cover 170 countries and 46 years. From the Financing Global Health database, we extracted gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, also covering 46 years, and Development Assistance for Health estimates starting from 1990 and domestic health spending estimates starting from 1995. We used a diverse set of empirical methods—synthetic control, within-country variance decomposition, structural equation models, and fixed-effects regression—which together provide a robust analysis of the association between democratisation and population health.

Findings
HIV-free life expectancy at age 15 years improved significantly during the study period (1970–2015) in countries after they transitioned to democracy, on average by 3% after 10 years. Democratic experience explains 22·27% of the variance in mortality within a country from cardiovascular diseases, 16·53% for tuberculosis, and 17·78% for transport injuries, and a smaller percentage for other diseases included in the study. For cardiovascular diseases, transport injuries, cancers, cirrhosis, and other non-communicable diseases, democratic experience explains more of the variation in mortality than GDP. Over the past 20 years, the average country’s increase in democratic experience had direct and indirect effects on reducing mortality from cardiovascular disease (−9·64%, 95% CI −6·38 to −12·90), other non-communicable diseases (−9·14%, −4·26 to −14·02), and tuberculosis (−8·93%, −2·08 to −15·77). Increases in a country’s democratic experience were not correlated with GDP per capita between 1995 and 2015 (ρ=–0·1036; p=0·1826), but were correlated with declines in mortality from cardiovascular disease (ρ=–0·3873; p<0·0001) and increases in government health spending (ρ=0·4002; p<0·0001). Removal of free and fair elections from the democratic experience variable resulted in loss of association with age-standardised mortality from non-communicable diseases and injuries.

Interpretation
When enforced by free and fair elections, democracies are more likely than autocracies to lead to health gains for causes of mortality (eg, cardiovascular diseases and transport injuries) that have not been heavily targeted by foreign aid and require health-care delivery infrastructure. International health agencies and donors might increasingly need to consider the implications of regime type in their efforts to maximise health gains, particularly in the context of ageing populations and the growing burden of non-communicable diseases.

Funding
Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.