How Higher Inequality Means Worse Health for All

Many of the world’s richest countries have seen rising national wealth and improved average health measures over the past few years. But despite this, a new international study has revealed that the level of inequality in a country can affect the health of all its teenagers, whichever part of the income spectrum they fall into.

It exposes the widening gap in physical and mental health between rich and poor, and finds that of nearly half a million 11 to 15 year olds from 34 countries across Europe and North America, those from the poorest socioeconomic groups are more likely to be in worse health across multiple measures, with inequality in life satisfaction the only measure to decrease over the period.  Crucially, adolescents living in countries with greater income inequality were less physically active, had larger body mass index, lower life satisfaction, and reported more psychological and physical symptoms. The health inequalities between socioeconomic groups in these countries were also larger.  

This distinct and widening gap is also apparent in the UK when we look at the differing health outcomes in local authority areas.  The most recent data from the ONS shows that the area with the highest life expectancy at birth (83) has seen an increase of more than 9 per cent over the last twenty years, whilst the area with the lowest life expectancy at birth (74.3) has increased by less than half that over the same period.  It is not difficult to guess which is the wealthier of the two local authorities – the annual median wage of the former is almost £10,000 higher. Life expectancies for the best and worst performing areas consistently reflect their economic differences.  This is also true when we look at healthy life expectancy – as we highlighted last summer, men living in the most affluent local authority can expect to enjoy almost two more decades of good health than those in the most deprived. 

The report’s lead author Professor Frank Elgar warns that, “If health inequalities are now widening in such abundantly rich countries, particularly during the so-called ‘healthy years’ of adolescence, then these trends are especially alarming for future population health.” It is clear that health policy in future must recognise that simply measuring average levels of health is hopelessly inadequate, as it masks the disparities that endure into adulthood. 

But this international study tells us something else of the pernicious effects of economic inequality, and the urgent need to reduce it.

We already know from The Spirit Level that people living in more equal societies live longer, experience fewer mental health problems, are less likely to abuse drugs and rate their own health more highly. The evidence continues to mount – when will we see action?

Lucy Shaddock, Policy and Campaigns Officer