Next time you belt out the old patriot lyric “let freedom ring,” consider this: Freedom really does make you feel better.

A new study in the British Medical Journal shows that people who live in democratic societies (search) are physically healthier than those governed by repressive regimes.

Researchers in Spain used published freedom ratings from 170 countries to explore the impact of democracy on overall life expectancy and mother and infant mortality. Published freedom ratings are based on a country’s political rights, type of government, and civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and religion.

About 45 percent of the countries included in their study were deemed “free” societies, a third were partially free, and about a quarter were completely repressive.

After adjusting for a country’s wealth, population, and level of inequalities, lead researcher Alvaro Franco and colleagues discovered that democracy ruled when it came to the best levels of health.

They found that life expectancy was significantly longer in free societies. In addition, infant deaths and maternal deaths during birth were much lower in democracies.

The level of health declined in proportion to the amount of freedom, with the unhealthiest people living in repressive societies.

“The way societies organize themselves through their political regimes ... could have a more important role in health than structural variables such as wealth and the size of the public sector,” the researchers write in the journal report.

The reasons for the democracy-health connection are unclear, but the researchers speculate that democratic governments better recognize a citizen’s needs and give residents better access to information, more opportunities for empowerment, and social networking.

The researchers say if their findings are confirmed, a country’s freedom rating could help lay the groundwork for a new way of reducing national mortality.

By Kelli Miller Stacy, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Franco, A. British Medical Journal, Dec. 18-25, 2004; vol 329: pp 1421-1424. News release, BMJ.