A new international study published in The Lancet found that socioeconomic disparities between the richest and the poorest in 34 countries widened over the last decade, and have paralleled a growing inequality gap in health. The study looked at 34 countries in Europe and North America, and involved nearly 500,000 teens aged 11 to 15 who were surveyed for the World Health Organization’s Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study. Socioeconomic status was based on material assets and indicators of wealth like owning a car, and health was measured by looking at teens’ physical activity, BMI, psychological symptoms (irritability, nervousness, and difficulty sleeping), and physical symptoms (stomachaches, headaches, feeling dizzy, and life satisfaction).
While both improvements and declines in health were seen over the course of the study, the researchers found that differences between the richer and poorer became larger. People living in countries with the more income inequality were less physically active, had higher BMIs, lower life satisfaction, and more psychological and physical symptoms.
Drank Elgar, a psychiatry professor at McGill University in Canada, said in a press release. “If health inequalities are now widening in such abundantly rich countries, particularly during the so-called ‘healthy years’ of adolescence, then these trends are especially alarming for future populations. The many health and social problems that relate to income inequality and the current global trends in rising income inequality all lead to a grim prediction about future population health. Urgent action is needed to tackle inequities in health in adolescence," Elgar concluded.
One report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the UK notes: “The most plausible explanation for income inequality’s apparent effect on health and social problems is ‘status anxiety.’ This suggests that income inequality is harmful because it places people in a hierarchy that increases status competition and causes stress, which leads to poor health and other negative outcomes.”
The Institute for Policy Studies, found countries that were more unequal had higher rates of infant mortality deaths and lower life expectancies. These countries spanned from Japan to Denmark and the U.S. to Australia.
Food insecurity is prevalent throughout poor neighborhoods, making it difficult to eat healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Kids that grow up poor are also more likely to be at risk of smoking, binge drinking, substance abuse, and child abuse — lending to the current study’s reports of mental strife among teens.
Employer-paid health care benefits have grown at a faster rate for higher-income groups than lower and middle-class groups, meaning top-earners pay less out of pocket.