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Voting can be as good for your health as your health care policy

We all know voters pick who writes our laws, including those that govern health care. But did you know that casting your ballot can improve your health?
Image: I voted today sticker, US-VOTE
Lisa O. wears an "I Voted Today!" sticker after voting at City Hall in Philadelphia this month.Gabriella Audi / AFP - Getty Images file

Health care will be on voters' minds as they cast their ballots in the next two weeks: Nearly 6 in 10 said the issue was "a very big problem," according to the Pew Research Center in June, and the Kaiser Family Foundation found in September that 30 percent of Americans identified either the coronavirus or health care as the most important issue in this election.

There are likely a number of reasons why. More than 30 million Americans under 65 still lack health insurance. Health insurance is expensive, and the costs continue to increase. In 1960, our country spent just 5 percent of GDP on health care; by 2018, we spent 18 percent, meaning that nearly one of every five dollars we spend in this country goes toward health care. That's $11,000 per person per year.

Each political party has different ideas for addressing these challenges. Democratic nominee Joe Biden wants to expand the Affordable Care Act, while President Donald Trump has promised to replace it.

But there is another good health-related reason to vote: The mere act of voting can help improve your health.

That may sound preposterous; politics are stressful even in normal times — and this year hardly qualifies as normal. Mass protests have swept the nation, millions are out of work and natural disasters from floods to fires have destroyed homes and caused mass evacuations.

And then there's the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Many people are concerned about leaving their homes, much less congregating with hundreds of their fellow Americans at polling places. According to a recent Healthline survey, 68 percent of Americans are afraid they'll get exposed to Covid-19 if they vote in person.

Voting can be done safely during this pandemic: Plan your vote by knowing where to cast your ballot and how much time it will take, where to park and whether you'll need to stand in line. If so, you might want to take a bottle of water and a snack. Wear a mask, keep 6 feet away from others and carry hand sanitizer. If you can vote early or via absentee ballot, do so.

But vote. It can be a balm for all of today's uncertainty.

A wealth of research confirms that acts of civic engagement such as voting, volunteering and charitable giving deliver significant mental and physical health gains across all age groups.

A Carnegie Mellon University study found that in adults over 50, those who volunteered 200 hours or more in the previous year were less likely to develop high blood pressure and reported greater increases in psychological well being.

Higher levels of civic engagement make the entire population healthier — not just individuals. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health created a women's political participation index and found that a one-unit improvement in the index — which included voter registration and turnout — yielded 7.3 fewer deaths per 100,000 women. A UCLA study found that college students with higher levels of civic engagement later reported fewer symptoms of depression.

Voting is particularly beneficial for our mental health. Humans are social creatures, so we naturally want to feel like responsible members of a group, according to Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a professor at St. Mary's College in California.

"Voting is a form of civic engagement that allows individuals the opportunity to be part of something greater than ourselves," Dr. Timothy J. Legg, a medical advisor to Healthline, told me.

That's why people in households who are told they'll receive public praise for voting are nearly 5 percent more likely to cast a ballot, according to a Fordham University study. The same study found that publishing the names of all eligible, nonregistered voters in the local newspaper also increased turnout.

Just think about the "I voted" stickers that are ubiquitous on Election Day: Usually, adults find it silly to adorn themselves in stickers, yet millions of Americans are already proudly wearing their stickers this year, thanks to the rise of early voting and absentee balloting. Many are even displaying the icon on their videoconference backgrounds. This little symbol offers public proof that the bearer is a good citizen. (And a sticker shortage in 2018 actually left many Americans feeling pretty upset, according to multiple news reports.)

The positive health effects of voting can extend far beyond Election Day. One study of young people sponsored by the federal Department of Health and Human Services found that those who volunteered or voted were more likely to eat healthy and less likely to experience symptoms of depression years later.

Voting gives people agency and makes them feel like their choices matter. Consider a Brown University experiment, where participants were assigned to support the fictional "War Party" or "Peace Party." When the election arrived, researchers told some subjects they could vote, and told others that they had scheduling conflicts. When informed of the results of this hypothetical election, those who were told they could "vote" showed higher levels of satisfaction when their party won.

In other words, merely having the ability to vote and influence change can improve our mental health. In a recent Healthline survey, 86 percent of respondents said voting makes them feel good.

More than 140 million Americans — a record — are expected to cast ballots in this year's election. The stakes are high, and their votes will collectively determine how our nation tackles the rising cost of health care and how we handle access to affordable coverage.

Election Day is rapidly approaching and every eligible American should cast a ballot, whether in-person or by mail. After all, it's not just a civic duty — it's the healthy thing to do.