The poorest women in England have the same poor health at 60 as the richest at 76 – study | Health

A 60-year-old woman in England’s poorest areas typically has the same level of illness as a woman 16 years older in the wealthiest areas, a study of health differences has found.

The Health Foundation found a similarly large but smaller gap in men’s health. At age 60, a man living in the most vulnerable 10% of the country typically has the burden of ill health experienced by a counterpart in the wealthiest 10% at age 70.

The think tank’s analysis of NHS data also shows that women in England’s poorest areas are on average diagnosed with a long-term illness at the age of 40, while those in the most affluent areas do not until 48.

Poor women spend 43.6 years, or 52% of their lifetime, afflicted with diagnosed disease, while for their best-off peers it is 41 years, or 46% of their life cycle.

In addition, women from the most vulnerable backgrounds die on average at 83.6 years old, more than five years earlier than the life expectancy of 88.8 years for affluent women.

Similarly, the poorest men are expected to spend 42.7 years free from disease, while it is much longer among the wealthiest 10% of the population – 49.2 years. And life expectancy is 78.3 years, compared to 87.1 for the richest.

The findings underline the UK’s large and entrenched socio-economic inequalities in health, which the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted. Ministers have promised to make tackling them a priority as part of the commitment to leveling off, but a promised white paper on it has been delayed.

Researchers led by Toby Watt said their findings were probably the most accurate published so far because they were based on data describing patients’ interactions with primary care and hospital services and, unlike previous studies, did not rely on people’s self-reported health.

“In human terms, these stark differences show that by the age of 40, the average woman living in the poorest areas of England is already being treated for her first long-term illness. This condition means discomfort, poorer quality of life and extra visits to the GP, medication or hospital, depending on what it is. At the other end of the spectrum, the average 40-year-old woman will live an additional eight years – about 10% of her life – without reduced quality of life due to disease,” Watt said.

“Throughout the rest of her life, the poor 40-year-old is more likely to have difficulty breathing due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, experience alcohol problems, chronic pain, anxiety, depression and have a heart attack or stroke at a younger age. If she reaches 80, which is less likely, she will still receive treatment for and live with more serious illness than her wealthier counterparts.”

He and his team found that disparities in disease burden start in childhood and persist and change in nature through adulthood and into old age. However, they can be largely explained over the life cycle by just a handful of diseases: chronic pain, diabetes, severe breathing problems, anxiety, depression, strokes, heart attacks and drinking-related problems.

In a speech last year, Sajid Javid, then health secretary, identified the “disease of difference” as a major preventable cause of death and promised to tackle its underlying causes.

Watt urged whoever of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak becomes the next prime minister to treat health inequalities as a top priority. Doing so would involve a focus on “good quality jobs, housing and education” and not just more action from the NHS, he added.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The pandemic has shone a light on the stark health inequalities that exist across the country – we are committed to equalizing the health of the nation so that everyone can live longer and healthier lives, regardless of their background.

“We have created the Office of Health Improvement and Disparities to drive progress in improving health and reducing these unacceptable disparities, focusing on the places and communities where ill health is most prevalent.

“We recognize that women live longer on average than men but spend more of their lives in poor health, which is why we published the Women’s Health Strategy on 20 July 2022 to work to close the gender health gap.”

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