A landmark study has found poverty and destitution is larger risk factor for premature death than obesity or heavy alcohol consumption, with those from poorer households almost 1.5 times more likely to die before their 85th birthday than those from wealthier backgrounds.
Researchers looked at 48 seperate studies from some of the richest countries including the UK, France, and the US, to investigate how low socio-economic status impacts on health and life expectancy.
The study found those from the poorest backgrounds could expect to see a 2.1 year reduction in life expectancy. Among this group, 55,600 died before reaching the age of 85 compared with 25,452 wealthier individuals.
41% of men included in the study and 27% of women are believed to fall within the low socio-economic group, AOL reports.
In the first of its kind, the study also compared low socio-economic status with more commonly accepted causes of premature death, such as smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, heavy alcohol consumption and inactiveness.
Smoking and diabetes were found to be the biggest killers, reducing life expectancy by 4.8 years and 3.9 years respectively. But poverty was found to be a bigger contributing factor of reduced life expectancy than high blood pressure, obesity and alcohol misuse.
Dr Silvia Stringhini, from Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland, who was the lead researcher on the study, said: “Given the huge impact of socio-economic status on health, it’s vital that governments accept it as a major risk factor and stop excluding it from health policy”.
Writing in the Lancet Medical Journal, she added: “Reducing poverty, improving education and creating safe home, school and work environments are central to overcoming the impact of socio-economic deprivation.
“By doing this, socio-economic status could be targeted and improved, leading to better wealth and health for many.”
Professor Paolo Vineis, from Imperial College London, said: “Socio-economic status is important because it is a summary measure of lifetime exposures to hazardous circumstances and behaviours, that goes beyond the risk factors for non-communicable diseases that policies usually address.
“Our study shows that it should be included alongside these conventional risk factors as a key risk factor for ill health.”