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Commuting to an Early Grave

• April 12, 2013 • 7:39 AM

(PHOTO: EGD/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Long commutes take a toll on everybody, but women pay more dearly than men.

Got a killer commute? You just may.

Thursday in Los Angeles (appropriately), social geographer Erika Sandow presented her latest slice of commuting scholarship, which finds that some workers with long commutes—more than 31 miles (50 kilometers) one way—die sooner than people who live closer to their job. Sandow, with Sweden’s Umeå University, outlined her as-yet-unpublished work during the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.

There’s already enough academic research on the perils of commuting to fill a minivan, or at least a Mini. Sandow noted existing studies that showed how commuting was linked to higher blood pressure, added stress, taking more sick leave, gaining more weight, a higher incidence of heart disease, and more. Her own work, besides establishing the parameters for a long commute, has shown the toll that commuting takes on relationships.

But those earlier studies, while offering consistently dire warnings of commuting’s damage to body and mind, stopped short of drawing a line from the fast lane to the final off ramp. Many of those results also came from small data sets. So Sandow and her Umeå colleagues trolled through a wonderful longitudinal database from Statistics Sweden covering the period from 1985 to 2008 and looked at workers who were 55 in 1994, then compared those who made long commutes (2,744 of them, a majority of them men) with those who didn’t (56,955).

Sandow said she assumed at the start of the investigation that, given what was known about the perils of the long-distance commuter, there would be a robust correlation between commuting and an earlier death. And there was a statistically meaningful link—but only for women, and only for women who either had a low income or low education. The correlation grew stronger as the commute lengthened.

Why only women (although maybe that’s not such a surprise)? Sandow said her team didn’t have an answer, but wondered if women experienced greater “negative stress” because they had greater household obligations than the men (even in egalitarian Sweden).

It’s also worth noting Sandow’s previous work that found long-distance commuters usually were taking advantage of career-enhancing employment, which suggests a fatter paycheck may ameliorate some of the stress of spending hours in the car.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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