Does your wealth affect your health?

Does being rich or poor affect your health? The answer is yes, according to a recent guest lecture on Inequality in later life by Professor James Nazroo at the University of NSW.

According to his research, there are significant inequalities in later life, and these inequalities can have dramatic effects on your health and wellbeing. These inequalities in wealth, class, gender, and ethnicity can even affect how long you live, your likelihood of being in poorer health, and even how depressed you are likely to be.

As visiting Professor of Sociology from the University of Manchester and a Partner Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR), Nazroo presented findings from his work on population ageing and health in Manchester, where local councils are gradually changing their policy about health and social reform to address inequalities in later life, with the help of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Though that data he references is from the UK, Nazroo says the findings are highly relevant to Australia, which is similarly grappling with the challenge of providing solutions for an ageing population.

Inequality and survival
It may be surprising to learn that even despite the availability of public healthcare, having extra money in the bank could mean you live longer.

In his lecture, Nazroo highlighted the differences in survival rates between poor and rich participants of a study over a six-year period.

After six years, it was found that only 4.5 per cent of women in the richest fifth of the population had died, compared to 17 per cent of the poorest fifth of the population. The finding was similar for men in the study, says Nazroo.

“You are two-thirds more likely to die if you are in the poorest fifth of the population, compared to the richest fifth of the population,” he says.

The rich are healthier
If you are rich, you won’t just live longer; you are also more likely to be in good health, says Nazroo. Dramatic differences in health were observable in the findings from the UK, with rich people reporting better health than those who were poor.

In fact, wealth was such an important factor in the health rating of the study participants that the health of the richest half of the population in the group aged 75 and over was similar to the health of the poorest half of the population aged 60-65 — that’s despite being approximately 15 years older.

How does inequality affect wellbeing?
The differences in the health of rich versus poor were also similar for measurements of wellbeing in the data from the UK, Nazroo explained.

When researchers looked at how depressed participants were as a measure of their wellbeing, they found that the poorest fifth of the population were much more depressed and had much worse wellbeing than the richest fifth of the population.

“This difference was so large that the best depression rating for the poorest fifth of the population — which was in the age group 65 to 75 — was still higher than the depression ratings for the richest fifth of the population in all age categories,” says Nazroo.

Interestingly, the social class you fit into has an effect on your health by dictating the social, civic, and cultural activities available to you in later life. Nazroo illustrated this point with findings relating to social detachment.

“If you are in the richest fifth of the population, your chances of becoming socially detached overtime are about a fifth of those in the poorest group of the population.”

Why these findings are important
Despite the recent trend towards self-funded healthcare, these findings suggest healthcare needs to be affordable for everyone — no matter what their financial status.

Should wealth be equally distributed?

“Maybe not, but there is an argument that it shouldn’t be as skewed as it is … where [in the study in Manchester] the data shows that the richest half of the population owned 75 per cent of the wealth,” says Nazroo.

How to buck the trend

  • Volunteer: Being socially engaged leads to better health outcomes.
  • Exercise: Staying active as you age can keep you healthier for longer.
  • Continue working: Those that continue to work after retirement age in good quality work see an improvement in their depression and health.
  • If you retire, begin looking after the home: This behaviour is associated with an improvement in depression and wellbeing.

Should healthcare be only for the wealthy?

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