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

Published March 13, 2019, in The Lancet (opens in a new window)


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.


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 democratization and population health.


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-standardized mortality from non-communicable diseases and injuries.


When enforced by free and fair elections, democracies are more likely than autocracies to lead to health gains for causes of mortality (e.g., 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 maximize health gains, particularly in the context of aging populations and the growing burden of non-communicable diseases.

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Bollyky TJ, Templin T, Cohen M, Schoder D, Dieleman JL, Wigley S. The relationships between democratic experience, adult health, and cause-specific mortality in 170 countries between 1980 and 2016: an observational analysis. The Lancet. 13 March 2019. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30235-1


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