July 7, 2006

Poor in England More Likely than Rich to Die in 50s

By Patricia Reaney

LONDON -- The poorest in England are over 10 times more likely to die in their 50s than richer people despite receiving similar healthcare, researchers said.

Obesity and smoking, two of the leading causes of preventable death, are more common in lower economic groups but Professor Michael Marmot of University College London said psychological factors and social position can also have an effect on health.

"There is an intricate relationship between wealth and health," said Marmot, the principal investigator of the English Longitudinal Study on Aging (ELSA).

ELSA follows the health, wealth, relationships, retirement and other issues of 8,780 people born before 1952 who are interviewed every two years.

"For each age group the richer had a lower risk of dying," Marmot told a news conference.

Wealthier people were also less likely to suffer from 17 common chronic diseases including high blood pressure and diabetes. But the quality of healthcare did not vary by wealth which suggests other factors are also important.

About twice as many people in the poorest as opposed to the richer group felt isolated often or some of the time. Living alone was also more common in people on the lower economic levels.

"Adult social position has a clear effect on health," said Marmot, adding that in older people social isolation kills.

But according to the study, 60 percent of 75-year-olds are young at heart and did not think of themselves as old.

Marmot said studies done in European countries and the United States revealed similar findings linking health and wealth.

He added that the redistribution of wealth is not the answer to the problem, adding that a better understanding of the causal relationship is needed.

"The challenge is not to abolish hierarchies. It is to understand better what links your position in the hierarchy to your health," he said.

When earlier results of the ELSA study were compared with similar research in the United States it showed that Americans are not as healthy as the English. Americans had more illness in all income and education levels for six serious medical conditions than their neighbors across the Atlantic.