5 reasons the rich live longer than the poor

Posted April 18

Research shows that the rich can expect to enjoy a much longer life than their poor neighbors, and the gap is growing. Curiously, geography and education play into this disparity. (Deseret Photo)

"Live long and prosper" may prove to be more than just a proverbial Star Trek catchphrase, as new research suggests a link between wealth and a long life.

A recent study from the Brookings Institute says the richest 10 percent of Americans may live as many as 14 years longer than the poorest 10 percent.

According to the research, that life expectancy gap is widening. Between men born in 1920 to 1950, life expectancy grew by 0.7 years for the poor, while life expectancy grew by 8.1 years for the rich.

Here are some of the explanations for the longevity gap between rich and poor.


Data has existed for some time suggesting a relationship between affluence and longevity, and a new study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association offers additional explanation to the phenomenon using geographical data.

As it turns out, the poor don't have a shorter life expectancy than average in every part of the country. While the wealthy consistently live longer across the board, only in some regions do the poor live shorter lives than the middle-class.

According to The New York Times, poor people live longest in cities such as New York, Miami and San Jose. On the other hand, Detroit, Tulsa and Las Vegas are home to some of the shortest life expectancies for the poor.

“You don’t want to just think about why things are going badly for the poor in America," lead author of the JAMA study told the Times. "You want to think specifically about why they’re going poorly in Tulsa and Detroit.”

Smoking, drugs, and alcohol

While expectancy for the rich has increased in recent decades due to a decline in smoking, the poor have seen no such drop.

According to a 2010 study published in the Annual Review of Sociology, poorer people are more likely to smoke and drink in excess, both potential causes of dying younger.

Prescription and other substance abuse also plays a critical role in the shorter life expectancy of the poor — a role linked to geography.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's geographical depiction of drug overdoses in the past 15 years is similar to the Times' map of low life expectancy for the poor. This suggests drug and other substance abuse is contributing to the shorter lives of the poor, especially in specific regions.


While the poor are more likely to have bad health habits such as smoking, they are less likely to have good health habits such as exercise.

According to the National Cancer Institute, regular moderate exercise can add as many as 4.5 years to life expectancy.

While finances can impact the amount of exercise a person gets because those with money have time to exercise or can afford to join a gym, money is unlikely to be the main contributor. After all, smoking and drinking can be costly.

Because of bad diet and exercise habits, the poor are more likely to be obese and have stress, contributing to a shorter life expectancy.


Those with a healthier lifestyle are most likely more educated, according to a U.S. News report on the positive relationship between education and longevity. People who go to college drink less and are less likely to smoke, use drugs and be obese.

According to a study by Harvard Medical School professor George Valliant, education is one of the greatest determinants of life expectancy. Even just a four-year college degree can extend life significantly.

Access to health care

Contrary to intuition, health care access has little effect on the disparity of years of life between the rich and poor.

According to the New York Times, the new JAMA study suggests a weak relationship between Medicare spending, the proportion of people who have insurance and life expectancy.

That's not to say health care has no effect, but it's not as simple as saying the rich can afford higher-quality care and are, therefore, healthier.

twitter: @zamturner


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