by Jen Jenkins
A disturbing new pattern is emerging from a growing body of data. Although experts have long been aware that people of affluence live longer people than people who are poor, this recent New York Times article delves into the widening longevity gap between high-income and low-income Americans. In their newest research, economists at the Brookings Institution found when looking at the top ten percent of earners and the bottom ten percent for men born in 1920 there was a six-year difference in life expectancy; for men born in 1950 that difference skyrocketed to fourteen years. The causes for this growing chasm are still under investigation but one explanation may be the significant declines in smoking among the educated and affluent populations. Although it is hard to point to any one cause, smoking is known to be the single biggest cause of preventable death and has definitely played a role in the widening gap. The article goes on to discuss other possible factors and the potential weight they may or may not carry. These include obesity, the prescription drug epidemic, and limited access to health care.
Elizabeth H. Bradley, a professor of public health at Yale, believes that economic and social inequities are at the heart of this disparity, which is something that high-tech medicine cannot fix. Last summer, after convening a panel of experts to study the implications of the growing longevity gap, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that disparate life expectancies are making programs such as Social Security and Medicare unfair to the poor. More information on what this means for the promise of Social Security can be found in this research report published by the Brookings Institution.
The New York Times article wraps up with a quote from Christopher J.L. Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle.
“There are large swaths of the population that are not enjoying the pretty impressive gains the rest of us are having in life spans. Not everybody is sharing in the same prosperity and progress.”
Policy makers are now expressing concern over shortening life spans for some Americans, especially since the United States has slipped down to some of the lowest rankings of life expectancy among rich countries.
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