- A study published in JAMA Sunday shows life expectancy between America's richest and poorest varies significantly with men in the top 1% of income living 15 years longer than men in the bottom 1% and women's life expectancy between the two different income levels differing by 10 years.
- The researchers, led by Stanford University economist, Raj Chetty, analyzed 1.4 billion tax returns between 1999 and 2014 and compared it with data from the Social Security Administration death records. They also found income inequality has gotten worse over time.
- However, the income gaps are not inevitable and vary geographically, according to the study.
For top life expectancy cities like New York and Los Angeles, the average life expectancy among the bottom 25% of incomes was 81 years - only four or five years less than those at the top 25%. In the worst cities for longevity for the poorest, such as Tulsa and Indianapolis, the bottom 25% of earners lived to 77 years - seven to nine years less than the top income earners.
Although the study authors were unable to pinpoint an exact reason for the socioeconomic and geographic longevity differences, they discussed several theories ranging from differences in medical care, to poor physical environments (eg. air pollution).
Co-author David Cutler, a Harvard economist, said the most prominent pattern the study revealed was that low-income individuals lived the longest in areas with well-educated, high-income populations that had generous government funding. This may be due to healthy public policies (eg. smoking bans, trans fat bans, calorie labeling requirements) and well-funded public services, according to the study authors.
A JAMA editorial by Dr. Angus Deaton of Princeton University opined the study is especially important today considering the NIH's recent decision that research on financial well-being will no longer be funded unless the link between financial well-being and health is explicitly established.
Dr. Deaton said it is unlikely "that another study of income, location and mortality will ever have more or better data." Yet he said the study "overstates the life expectancy gaps between the top and bottom income levels," and "understates the rate at which the gaps between expected live expectancies of rich and poor are widening." This has potential policy implications and Deaton concludes that the analysis should be extended to include education, which could help further understand the factors related to income and life expectancy.
The New York Times published a national county map Monday that shows the life expectancy for 40-year-olds with household incomes below $28,000, and provides comparison information of additional income levels as well as other factors that affect life expectancy.