homeless man in street
March 27, 2017

Poverty shaves two years off your life, study finds

Being poor increases your likelihood of a premature death more than high blood pressure, high alcohol consumption, and even obesity, according to a new study led by researchers at Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland and published in the medical journal The Lancet.

In the study, Dr. Silvia Stringhini of the hospital’s Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine and her colleagues reviewed 48 different studies involving individuals from the US, UK, France, Australia, Switzerland, Portugal, and Italy to investigate the various causes of early mortality.

They found that low socioeconomic status reduced life expectancy by an average of 2.1 years. In comparison, hypertension only reduced expectancy by 1.6 years, obesity reduced life expectancy by 0.7 years and high alcohol consumption reduced life expectancy by 0.5 years.

“Given the huge impact of socioeconomic status on health, it's vital that governments accept it as a major risk factor and stop excluding it from health policy,” Dr. Stringhini, who is also a part of the hospital’s Departments of Psychiatry and Internal Medicine, told the Huffington Post.

“Reducing poverty, improving education and creating safe home, school, and work environments are central to overcoming the impact of socioeconomic deprivation.” she added. “By doing this, socioeconomic status could be targeted and improved, leading to better wealth and health for many.”

Health policies need to include social rank, authors argue

Dr. Stringhini’s team set out to compare the relative contribution to mortality of socioeconomic status and conventional risk factors, including smoking, obesity, and non-communicable disease. They looked at data from 48 different studies that included information about income, as well as conventional risk factors and mortality for more than 1.7 million men and women.

Based on their data, the subjects (who were 54% female) lost an average of 4.8 years to smoking, 3.9 years to diabetes and 2.4 years to an inactive or sedentary lifestyle. Only those three potential risk factors rated higher than socioeconomic status on the list, which seems to indicate that being poor could be more hazardous to your health than obesity or alcoholism.

“Socioeconomic status is important because it is a summary measure of lifetime exposures to hazardous circumstances and behaviors, that goes beyond the risk factors for non-communicable diseases that policies usually address,” senior author Paolo Vineis, a professor at Imperial College London, said in a statement. “Our study shows that it should be included alongside these conventional risk factors as a key risk factor for ill health.”

“Having low social rank means being powerless to determine your own destiny, deprived of material resources, and limited in the opportunities open to you, which – the authors imply – shapes both your lifestyle and your life chances,” added New Zealand-based Dr. Martin Tobias. “The authors’ key message is clear: social rank deserves consideration alongside the established ... risk factors” for mortality.

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