Wealthy people stay healthy 9 years longer in old age than those who struggle financially, says new study

Rachel Grumman Bender
Wealth, as well as higher education, can add more healthy years to your life, according to a new study. (Photo: Getty Images)
Wealth, as well as higher education, can add more healthy years to your life, according to a new study. (Photo: Getty Images)

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can make a big difference when it comes to your health. A new study published in the Journals of Gerontology found that wealthy people in both the U.S. and England live nine years longer than those who struggle financially.

In the study, researchers looked at data from the Gateway to Global Aging Data on 14,803 people aged 50 and up from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study (HRS), as well as 10,754 individuals from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) and followed them for 10 years to see whether people in England had a longer life expectancy than those in the U.S.

The researchers specifically focused not just on people who lived longer, but on those who maintained a good quality of life in the senior years, free of age-related disabilities.

“We often talk about how many years we can expect to live and what age when people will die, but we thought what is really important is how many additional years of life we gain that can be spent in good health,” lead author of the study, Paola Zaninotto, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So you can function, you can walk and do the things that you like to do for most of these years, without disabilities. We wanted to see how many of these years people would live.”

The study found that — not surprisingly — the biggest socioeconomic factor that influenced whether people lived healthier, longer lives was wealth. According to a press release from the University College London, “at age 50 the wealthiest men in England and the U.S. lived around an additional 31 ‘healthy’ years compared to around 22-23 years for those in the poorest wealth groups. Women from the wealthiest groups from the U.S. and England lived around an additional 33 ‘healthy’ [years] compared to 24.6 and 24 years from the poorest wealth groups in England and the U.S. respectively.”

The researchers also looked at education levels and found that those who were highly educated had more disability-free years compared to those who were less educated. But the difference was smaller between those two groups, proving that wealth (or lack thereof) was more influential when it came to the number of functional, healthy years in old age.

“We were not surprised,” shares Zaninotto. “In fact, the reason for looking at wealth and not income is that we know how important a socioeconomic indicator it is. This measure of wealth is based on housing, savings, investments — something that takes a long time to accumulate. It’s a measure of past and present circumstances.”

Zaninotto says the study highlights the “vastness of wealth inequality in both countries” — the U.S. and England — and hopes that it will influence policymakers.

“We really think this inequality should be addressed much earlier in life,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “When people are older, you can’t give them an education — it really should start much earlier in life. It’s looking at improving opportunities across community and education much earlier and trying to help younger people to buy a house. It seems it is quite important.”

Marina Martin, MD, geriatrician and section chief of geriatric medicine at Stanford, agrees about early intervention. She tells Yahoo Lifestyle that there are several factors that influence a person’s longevity, “which we have variable degrees of control — genetics, biologic sex (females live longer on average), the safety of our living environment, access to healthy food, regular physical activity, being part of supportive relationships in family or community, and access to good health care.”

But rather than feeling helpless over wealth and education inequality, Laura Carstensen, psychologist and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, sees the study as a call to action. “It actually should inspire us,” Carstensen tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “If people who have a certain kind of a lifestyle are able to live functionally healthy almost a decade longer than people who are not, it means it isn’t age that’s the problem — it’s something else and that means it’s changeable because it’s not happening to everybody. That means we can begin to start to modify environments and access to care and nutrition and really make the changes.”

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