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Wealth and Mortality

As noted earlier, wealth is usually correlated with good health because of access to food and the ability to save money for crises. Additionally, the wealthy had better working conditions, medical support, social networks, and above all, knowledge. Nonetheless, in Britain from 1500 to 1950, child mortality was significantly higher among the elite and very wealthy than among commoners in London; albeit with some exceptions. Infant mortality was lower among laborers and paupers than other socioeconomic groups, even though the child mortality rate was higher. This unexpected dissimilarity may be explained by the fact that the wealthy often sent their children out to wet nurses. Wet nursing as has been discussed, was a determinant in infant mortality. Additionally, during outbreaks of disease, the wealthy would move away to equally unhealthy places. If a wealthy mother chose to nurse her own child and moved to another region she would not necessarily have the requisite antibodies present in her breast milk to help her infant to fight the diseases in the new region. Trade and travel also brought disease to the upper class.19

A similar phenomenon was observed in both nineteenth century Sweden and in Venice Italy, where the wealthy experienced high child mortality, while laborers realized lower child death rates.20 Soren Edvinnson, a demographic researcher, explains that those who were laborers, or who were not land owners, could not afford milk; consequently mothers in these families had to breastfeed their children longer. Therefore, lower mortality rates occurred among laborers. Additionally, while not true of all poor families in nineteenth century Europe, in Venice the poor tended to live in open spaces —reducing the spread of infectious disease.

While the Catholic Venetians experienced relatively low mortality (twenty- five to thirty percent in the nineteenth century), infant mortality of Jewish children in the same region was even lower. Even the poorest Jews in Venice had lower mortality than the richest Catholics.21 Lifestyle, in part, explains these differences; genetics, religious beliefs facilitating good health behaviors, personal hygiene, austere living, community welfare institutions and social cohesion, and prolonged breastfeeding (which also acted as birth control) all improved the mortality of Jewish, Venetian children. Other researchers have explained that the drastic differences in mortality between the two groups is due in part to Catholics demonstrating over mortality (twenty-five to thirty percent), that is, a higher mortality rate than expected, rather than Jewish under mortality, which was fourteen percent in the nineteenth century.22

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