While it may not surprise you to hear that a life expectancy gap exists between the richest people in American and the poorest, the size of the gap might.
According to a report in The New York Times, the Social Security Administration examined the gap back in the early 1970s by analyzing how long a 60-year-old man could expect to live if he was at the top half of the earnings ladder versus the bottom. According to their data, the wealthy man could only expect to live 1.2 years longer than the poor man. Time, and perhaps the ever widening gap between the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor, has taken its toll on this number.
In 2001, the Social Security Administration ran the numbers again, and found that the difference in life expectancy had jumped up to 5.8 years. That’s quite a leap in just 30 years! Now, in 2016, that number has more than doubled to 14 years in half the time (the gap being 13 years between poor and rich women). If that doesn’t prove there’s something very wrong with the distribution of wealth in this country, I don’t know what will.
However, the experts involved in this most recent study can’t quite say for sure if wealth inequality is the main culprit behind the exponentially increasing life expectancy gap. While it certainly seems to be a catalyst, there are other, more basic factors at play as well.
Gary Burtless, co-author of the study explained on NPR, “More affluent Americans tend to engage more in systematic exercise. They are less likely to be obese. Their smoking rates are lower. Those differences can help account for why there is a difference in how long people live.” But again, those things don’t account for the entire gap increase. Something else is also at work here; however it’s perhaps too multi-leveled for researchers to tackle in one study.
The one good thing about this is the study was published at the perfect time, politically speaking — during the presidential campaign. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have already begun to address the issue in their most recent debates.
One theory many public health researchers keep returning to has to do with smoking habits. Smoking is the biggest cause of preventable death in America, and now that the wealthy and overall better educated are giving it up, their average life span is improving. A study conducted at Duke University found that smoking actually accounts for a third to a fifth of the life expectancy gap between the rich and poor. I’d say that’s a pretty sizable percentage.
Other factors like obesity definitely play a part in the widening gap, but the numbers aren’t nearly as cut and dry as the smoking statistics.
So what can we do with an issue that seems so completely out of our hands? I suppose the best advice is to vote for the candidates who care about shrinking the income gap, and advocate for better universal health care plans. Oh, and definitely quit smoking.