A low socioeconomic status is so damaging to health, it reduces life expectancy by 2.1 years. That's worse than obesity or high blood pressure and a consortium of global researchers are calling for it to be treated like any other major health risk factor.
The global study included data from 40,000 Melbournians courtesy of Cancer Council Victoria as well as studies from the UK, France, Switzerland, Portugal, Italy and the USA.
In these countries, researchers showed a low socioeconomic status was a major risk factor in ill health and premature death, but was rarely recognised in official health policy.
How does low socioeconomic status compare?
Current smoking reduced life expectancy by 4.8 years
Diabetes reduced life expectancy by 3.9 years
Being inactive reduced life expectancy by 2.4 years
Low socioeconomic status reduced life expectancy by 2.1 years
High blood pressure reduced life expectancy by 1.6 years
Obesity reduced life expectancy by 0.7 years
High alcohol consumption reduced life expectancy by 0.5 years
Study author Silvia Stringhini said the research showed health policies should target low socioeconomic groups if early mortality was to be avoided.
"Given the huge impact of socioeconomic status on health, it's vital that governments accept it as a major risk factor and stop excluding it from health policy," Stringhini said.
"Reducing poverty, improving education and creating safe home, school and work environments are central to overcoming the impact of socioeconomic deprivation. By doing this, socioeconomic status could be targeted and improved, leading to better wealth and health for many."
New Zealand-based doctor Martin Tobias said there was no one issue that meant people from low socioeconomic groups were more likely to be unwell.
"Having low social rank means being powerless to determine your own destiny, deprived of material resources, and limited in the opportunities open to you, which shapes both your lifestyle and your life chances," Tobias said.
He told The Huffington Post Australia our region was typical of the results but that indigenous communities were worse affected than the statistics showed.
"On the one hand Australia and New Zealand are fairly typical high-income countries, I think, with moderately high levels of social inequality and not particularly generous welfare systems in terms of income support or non-financial benefits for families with dependent children," he told HuffPost Australia.
"On the other hand, one key dimension of social inequality in both countries -- albeit hardly unique to them -- is that inequality is ethnically patterned, with indigenous peoples in both countries being socially disadvantaged relative to the respective settler communities."
"This of course reflects their colonial heritage and adds an extra dimension -- anti-racism legislation and policies -- to government and civil society action to reduce social inequality and ameliorate its impact on health."
Indeed in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience disadvantage across a range of indicators including education, employment and income.
Another study released today went some way to explaining how health and socioeconomic groups were linked, showing Australians were avoiding the doctor and buying medicine because they couldn't afford it.
The Productivity Commission report showed 900,000 Australians put off GP visits because they were worried about the cost and 7.6 per cent of people didn't buy medication they'd been prescribed because it was too expensive.
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