To No One’s Surprise, the Rich Are Living Longer, Healthier Lives

Yoga instructor Sarah Henry leads a class during a paddleboard yoga session - Source: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Mention the words “paddleboard yoga” in almost any working-class neighborhood in America, and you’re likely to draw one of the blankest stares imaginable. But paddleboard yoga, and a number of other luxuries relegated to those on the upper-end of the economic spectrum, are evidently making a big difference in terms of public health.

In fact, if you want to live a longer, healthier life, researchers have nailed down exactly what you need to do: make more money.

“The greater one’s income, the lower one’s likelihood of disease and premature death,” declares a new study from The Urban Institute, which looked at the relationship between wealth and health. “Studies show that Americans at all income levels are less healthy than those with incomes higher than their own. Not only is income (the earnings and other money acquired each year) associated with better health, but wealth (net worth and assets) affects health as well.”

By comparing declared family incomes to the prevalence of certain diseases and the age of death, researchers were able to reach the conclusion that the rich do actually live healthier lifestyles and have a lower chance of dying young. There are many reasons why — most of which you can probably guess — but to give you a condensed version of the story, it mostly boils down to the fact that money provides access to health care opportunities that poorer Americans simply can’t afford.

That includes health insurance, time for exercise, a healthy and nutritious diet, and even healthier environments in which to live. There are a million factors that play into our health and ultimately what ends up killing us, but for those with enough money, they are better able to shield themselves from many of those factors and beat the averages.

This isn’t just bad news for poorer Americans, it’s bad news for everyone.

When economically disadvantaged Americans, who make up a big chunk of the work force, are generally unhealthy, the costs get off-loaded onto society as a whole. For example, wealthy business owners have an incentive to ensure that their employees make enough through wages to be able to afford a healthy lifestyle. Otherwise, they end up paying for it themselves.

“Disadvantaged workers are more likely to generate higher health care costs from their increased risk of illnesses. Thus, employers of low-income workers pay a double price: in health care expenses and diminished productivity,” the study says.

There’s definitely something to be said about inequality in all of this as well. As America further polarizes economically, and achieving a healthy body and mind becomes harder and harder to attain, the costs could end up straining an already-troubled healthcare system.

The question is, how can we take these insights to heart and implement changes to help the less fortunate have healthier lifestyles? The Urban Institute cites three specific policy-based solutions, which rely on both the public and private sectors’ cooperation. Those solutions include the development of earnings and asset programs to improve economic self-sufficiency, implementation of family-strengthening programs, and neighborhood-strengthening programs. By sharing the load of responsibility for public health between individuals, families, and the community at large, the idea is that change can be made more efficiently and faster than if it were simply left up to each person fending for themselves.

Since everyone benefits from a healthier community, spreading the burden and costs far and wide makes sense.

In the end, what we could see as a result of improved public health is a boon for the economy. Production could go up, education levels could increase, and people can generally live happier lives — again, benefiting both rich and poor. “Improving the economic conditions of Americans at many income levels—from those who are poor to those in the middle class — could improve health and help control the rising costs of health care,” The Urban Institute says. “Jobs, education, and other drivers of economic prosperity matter to public health.”

The findings may not be a shock to most people, but it does lend some credence to the notion that Americans should be more concerned about public health, and how it relates to economic inequality.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger

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