'Health Inequality' Sees Wealthy People Living Longer, More Pain-Free Lives

Being rich doesn't only mean living the good life. It also means living a longer and less pain-free life, as well.

A new study published Tuesday in the Journal of Gerontology studied how long people can expect to live free from physical disabilities and to what extent socio-economic factors (wealth and poverty) play a part in this. Conducted over a span of 10 years, the study involved 14,803 adults 50 and older in the United States and 10,754 adults over 50 in the United Kingdom. It looked at all the social and economic factors behind the reasons why people fall into ill health as they age.

One of the study's key findings is being wealthy adds nine years to healthy life expectancy. This means a life free from disability and pain, according to the study, which combined data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing and the U.S. Health and Retirement Study. Both these extensive investigations found the quality of life as we age is crucial to determining our overall health. They affirm life expectancy is a useful indicator of health, but isn't the most important.

The new study, which was led by researchers from University College London (UCL), reveals that at 50 years old, the wealthiest men in England and the U.S. lived an additional 31 healthy years compared to 22 to 23 years for those in the poorest wealth groups.

The same was true for wealthier women. These rich women from the U.S. and England lived an additional 33 healthy years against the 24.6 and 24 years from the poorest wealth groups in England the U.S., respectively.

The study also revealed the dismaying finding children born today are likely to spend a larger proportion of their lives in poor health than their grandparents. These kids will also see substantially smaller increases in their life expectancy compared to those born a few years earlier, or in the first decade of the 21st century.

“We found that socio-economic inequalities in disability-free life expectancy were similar across all ages in England and the U.S. but the biggest socio-economic advantage in both countries and across all age groups was wealth,” said Dr. Paola Zaninotto, a professor in epidemiology and healthcare at UCL.

She added by measuring healthy life expectancy, the research team got an estimate of the number of years of life spent in favorable states of health or without disability. It's also known improving the quality and the quantity of years individuals are expected to live impacts public expenditure on health, income, long-term care of older people and work participation.

"Our results suggest that policy makers in both England and the U.S. must make greater efforts into reducing health inequalities," Dr. Zaninotto concluded.

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