Research, carried out with Imperial College London, revealed that low socioeconomic status had almost the same impact on health than smoking or a sedentary lifestyle, and was associated with reduced life expectancy of 2.1 years, very similar to being physically inactive (2.4 years).
Socioeconomic status (SES) is a measure of an individual or family's economic and social position in relation to others, based on income, education, and occupation. However, although these factors are already known to affect health, no studies so far have compared its impact with other major risk factors on health. Health policies often don’t consider risk factors such as poverty and poor education when predicting health outcomes. Imperial College London’s study showed that coming from a low income area can be just as detrimental to health as tobacco use, unhealthy dieting habits, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol drinking.
Members the School of Public Health at Imperial College London studied 1.7 million people in the UK, France, Switzerland, Portugal, Italy, USA and Australia. They used people's job titles to estimate their SES and looked at whether they died early (before age 85.) They then compared these results against the main risk factors (tobacco use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol) as defined by the World Health Organization. The plan aims to reduce non-communicable diseases by 25% by 2025, but omits SES as a risk factor for these diseases. The researchers found that, compared to their wealthier counterparts, people with low SES were 46% more likely to die early.
The researchers calculated the number of years of life lost for various factors, and compared this to SES. They found the greatest number of years lost were for smoking and diabetes (life expectancy reduced by 4.8 and 3.9 years, respectively). Comparatively, high blood pressure, obesity and high alcohol consumption were associated with fewer life years lost (1.6, 0.7 and 0.5 years, respectively) than low SES. Based on these results, the authors say that low SES should be targeted alongside conventional health risk factors as part of national and global health strategies to help reduce early death.
It is vital that governments accept coming from a low-income background as a major risk factor and stop excluding it from health policies. Reducing poverty, improving education and creating safe home, school and work environments are essential if we want to overcome the impact socioeconomic status has on health.