NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Income, Education And Social Status Predict Health And Longevity

June 2, 1999

Scientists are coming to the rather startling conclusion that relative income, education and even social status are among the most powerful predictors of health -- more powerful even than genetics, exposure to carcinogens and smoking. Thus, the higher a person is on the socioeconomic ladder, the lower the risks for a wide variety of diseases.

This phenomenon is suddenly gaining a lot of attention.

  • In the past five years, 193 papers addressing aspects of socioeconomic status and health have appeared scientific journals -- twice the number in the previous five year period.
  • Scientists have long compared health differences between rich and poor or black and white -- but were unaware in many cases that race often served as proxy for socioeconomic status, since blacks are disproportionately represented in lower income brackets.
  • In one study, researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University found that men who ranked themselves low on the socioeconomic ladder were more likely to become infected with a mild respiratory virus than those who ranked themselves up higher on the ladder.
  • In another study, researchers found that people unemployed for one month or more under highly stressful conditions were 3.8 times more susceptible to a virus than people who were not experiencing a significant stressful situation.
  • Furthermore, the 1960s Whitehall study of British civil servants found that mortality rates for those in the lowest grade were three times higher than those in the highest -- and a 25-year follow up found the differences persisted even among men nearly 90 years old.

If socioeconomic status is taken into account, health differences between blacks and whites decreases substantially. Black men in the highest income brackets have a life expectancy 7.4 years longer than black men in the lowest brackets, according to research conducted by the University of Michigan's David R. Williams. White men at top income levels live 6.6 years longer than their lowest-income counterparts.

Source: Erica Goode, "For Good Health, It Helps to Be Rich and Important," New York Times, June 1, 1999.


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