Public Health Research

When I first learned about effective altruism, one of the most compelling aspects to me was the focus on neglected cause areas, and specifically the focus on the developing world versus the developed world when it comes to human health. Over time I have developed a slightly more nuanced view.

A few years ago someone posted about whether a cause that could theoretically improve human brain performance by 1% would be worthwhile of EA attention, and the author argued that it absolutely would. The argument was that the cumulative productivity impact of such an improvement would be stunning.

I was reminded of that post recently when reading Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, who described the significant benefits that things as simple as switching away from LED lighting could have on sleep quality, which in turn has enormous impact on cognitive performance, mental health, car accidents, etc. I started to think that further investments in sleep research could potentially have high societal returns.

I have become more convinced that public health research, in general, even if not specific to the developing world, might be a worthwhile cause area. For example, a recent study (https://​​​​news/​​health-news/​​articles/​​2021-08-31/​​kids-piled-on-extra-pounds-during-pandemic) claims that 46% of 5-11 year old children in the United States are now obese. This is an outrageous failure of our public health infrastructure. When one considers how much obesity contributes to other debilitating chronic diseases, the implications for the future are enormous.

I have heard the cliche that our health care system is good at acute issues but bad at chronic issues, but I now believe that’s more true than I previously appreciated. For example, it’s clear to me that pediatricians are not being proactive enough in guiding parents about how to keep children at healthy BMI levels.

There was recently a series of blog posts (https://​​​​2021/​​07/​​07/​​a-chemical-hunger-part-i-mysteries/​​) about the obesity “mystery”, and I realized that we don’t even really know what’s behind the obesity epidemic. This seems to represent an important place to allocate further research dollars given the scale of the problem and the potential rewards to addressing it.