If you’ve been watching politics recently you’ve probably heard a lot of talk about income inequality. But what about health inequality? Are the rich healthier than the poor, on average? If so, why is this the case?
A new study examined 1.4 billion U.S. tax records from 1999 to 2014 and cross referenced the tax records with death certificates. The researchers found that the rich do, in fact, live longer than the poor. The richest 1% live an average of 14.6 years longer than the poorest 1%. Women were also found to live longer than men at every income level (see above image).
Your first guess might be that the rich live longer because they can pay for superior medical care. However, when looking closer at the data, the researchers found that health inequality varied greatly by geographic region.
While access to care might play some role, the researchers found that geographic differences in life expectancy was not significantly correlated with access to medical care, physical environmental factors, income inequality or labor market conditions. The only significant correlation was with health behaviors such as smoking and exercise levels.
Health inequality definitely exists. Fortunately, income inequality doesn’t have to be solved for health inequality to be significantly reduced. It appears that changing health habits of the poor is enough to close the gap (although how to accomplish that is another question altogether). On an individual level, you might be well served to move to a city where you can walk to work, with nearby parks and a healthier overall culture.
Chetty, Raj, et al. “The association between income and life expectancy in the United States, 2001-2014.” JAMA (2016).
Sallis, James F., et al. “Physical activity in relation to urban environments in 14 cities worldwide: a cross-sectional study.” The Lancet. 387 (2016): 1347-1482.