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Health of poor British adults is now WORSE than it was for those born 100 years ago

Poor British people in 2020 are unhealthier than those born into poverty 100 years ago, a study has found.

Adults on low incomes who were born in 1920 enjoyed better health between the ages of 30 and 60, compared to those born in 1970.

The study considered how many people are living with long-term illnesses which are considered ‘life-limiting’ – such as heart failure, as well as self-reported health. 

While a quarter of the least well-off men born in the early 20th Century were found to be in bad health, that figure has now risen to one in three. 

Meanwhile, the opposite has been true for the richest people, who now have poor health rates of around one in 10, showing the gap between rich and poor has widened.

People born in the 1920s were less likely to say they had bad health when they hit their 30s, 40s and 50s than people born in the 1970s (Pictured: Children in a train carriage in September 1922) 

The study showed that the probability of people describing their own health as bad has risen sharply for the poorest men (dark grey line on the right-hand graph) and gradually for the poorest women (dark grey line on the left-hand graph) since the 1920s

The study showed that the probability of people describing their own health as bad has risen sharply for the poorest men (dark grey line on the right-hand graph) and gradually for the poorest women (dark grey line on the left-hand graph) since the 1920s

University College London researchers said the gap will only get worse unless action is taken to address the widening inequality.

The study analysed data for up to 263,390 people in the British General Household Survey from 1979 to 2011.

The results used were people’s own reports of how healthy they were, how they felt and also whether they had serious illnesses.

People could be divided into the poorest third of the population, the wealthiest third and the middle class.

The research did not give exact income breakdowns but government figures define households earning more than £900 per week as the wealthiest 30 per cent, and those earning less than £300 per week as the poorest 30 per cent.  

The study found women born in 1968-70 are twice as likely to have serious health problems than those born in 1920-22. The risk for men increased 1.5 times.

A quarter of the poorest men in the 1920s (26 per cent) had serious health problems, compared to more than a third in 1970 (35 per cent).

And among women, this rose from one in seven (15 per cent) to one in five (19 per cent).

For the richest households, however, the proportions of people reporting bad health shrank significantly during the same time, the study found.

‘The results presented here show a widening in health inequalities by income,’ wrote Dr Stephen Jivraj, who led the study.


People on low incomes are known to have significantly shorter lives than rich people, and also to spend less of their lives in good health.

There are various ways being short of money can affect someone’s health.

Those who are constantly stressed about money and making ends meet produce more of the stress hormone, cortisol. Over time this is known to cause damaging swelling inside the body and also to add to weight gain, sleep problems, depression and insulin resistance, which may lead to diabetes.

If people don’t have enough money they are also more likely to work more than one job, work long hours, or do shift work, all of which can disrupt sleep patterns – not sleeping properly is linked to heart disease, weight gain and dementia.

It is generally more expensive to get enough calories from healthy food, so poorer people often end up with worse diets which may leave them with vitamin deficiencies, excess fat, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.

And statistics show smoking rates are higher among people who are less well off. Smoking causes more than a dozen types of cancer, heart disease and increases the risk of dementia.

Dr Jivraj added: ‘They point to a greater future demand in healthcare from people in society who will be least capable of managing their health as they enter ages when [ill health] becomes more common.’

Dr Jivraj said it was beyond the scope of his study to say why the health of poorer people was getting worse.

But he suggested it was because the differences between the rich and poor were getting larger.

One of the reasons for this may be that, as house prices rise, the value of the homes of the wealthiest families increase, making them richer, while the poor are still left without property of their own and increasingly less likely to afford it.

People in poverty are known to have worse health outcomes because being short on money causes constant stress.

It is also more expensive to eat healthy foods and poor people are known to be more likely to smoke cigarettes.

Worse self-reported health is known to be linked to a greater risk of developing serious illnesses and dying prematurely, Dr Jivraj said.

In the survey, participants were asked to rate their general health – ‘Over the last 12 months, would you say your health has on the whole been good, fairly good or not good?’

And they also reported any ‘limiting long-term illness’ using a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

Limiting illnesses were not named in the study but generally include conditions which significantly affect day-to-day life, such as heart failure, lung diseases, incurable cancer, dementia or conditions like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.

Bad health was less common among wealthier people and became rarer over time – one in six (16 per cent) of the wealthiest men born in the 1920s said they had bad health, compared to one in 10 (11 per cent) in 1970.

For women this changed from one in 13 (eight per cent) to one in 11 (nine per cent).

The research was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, by the British Medical Journal.


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