Being wealthy adds nine years to healthy life expectancy: a life free from disability and pain, according to transatlantic research.
The 10-year study, conducted across the UK and US, looked at all the social and economic factors behind the reasons why people sink into ill-health as they age.
“We found that socio-economic inequalities in disability-free life expectancy were similar across all ages in England and the US but the biggest socio-economic advantage in both countries and across all age groups was wealth,” said Dr Paola Zaninotto, a professor in epidemiology and healthcare at University College London, which led the research.
Published on Tuesday in the Journal of Gerontology, the data from 10,754 UK adults aged 50 and older, and 14,803 US adults over 50, examined how long people can expect to live free from disabilities and to what extent socio-economic factors play a part.
The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing and the US Health and Retirement Study both found that while life expectancy is a useful indicator of health, the quality of life as we age is crucial to determining our health.
“By measuring healthy life expectancy we can get an estimate of the number of years of life spent in favourable states of health or without disability,” said Zaninotto.
“We know that improving both the quality and the quantity of years that individuals are expected to live has implications for public expenditure on health, income, long-term care of older people and work participation and our results suggest that policy makers in both England and the US must make greater efforts into reducing health inequalities,” she added.
In both countries people in the study were divided into groups based on total household wealth. Comparisons were made between the richest and least wealthy groups.
The paper shows that at 50 the wealthiest men in England and the US lived about an additional 31 healthy years, compared with about 22 to 23 years for those in the poorest wealth groups.
Women from the wealthiest groups from the US and England lived around an additional 33 “healthy” years, compared with 24.6 and 24 years from the poorest wealth groups in England the US respectively.
Recent ONS statistics also showed that those aged 65 are seeing their healthy life expectancy increase: since 2009, men in England and Wales aged 65 have gained 31.5 weeks of life and 33.5 weeks of healthy life. Women of the same age have gained 17.4 weeks of life and 23.3 weeks of healthy life over the same period.
But the data also revealed that children born today are likely to spend a larger proportion of their lives in poor health than their grandparents.
They will also benefit from substantially smaller increases in their life expectancy than those born a few years earlier, in the first decade of the 21st century.
In contrast, the proportion of life expected to be spent in good health in the UK has decreased between 2009-11 and 2016-18, from 79.9% to 79.5% for males and from 77.4% to 76.7% for females.