Poverty, Poor Education Shave Years Off the Life Span

MONDAY, Jan. 4 (HealthDay News) -- Smoking and obesity are known to lead to a host of life-threatening conditions from cardiovascular disease to cancer, but poverty may be even worse for your health, new research suggests.

According to a study by researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, people whose household earnings are in the bottom one-third of the U.S. population, or up to twice the federal poverty level, lost 8.2 years of perfect health. Obesity related to a 4.2 year loss in perfect health, while smokers lost 6.6 years. Healthy life lost is a measure that includes health and life expectancy.

Dropping out of high school was also a marker for poorer health. High school dropouts had 5.1 fewer years of perfect health, according to the report in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Poverty and high school dropout rates are usually looked at as socioeconomic problems, rather than as health problems, but both issues are as big a health problem as smoking or obesity, the study authors noted.

The researchers used data from previous national studies that measured health and life expectancy. After poverty, smoking and dropping out of high school, the top threats to health were non-Hispanic black race, obesity, binge drinking and being uninsured, in that order.

"While public health policy needs to continue its focus on risky health behaviors and obesity, it should redouble its efforts on non-medical factors, such as high school graduation and poverty-reduction programs," lead study author Dr. Peter Muennig, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the Mailman School of Public Health, said in a university news release.

Muennig explained that effective programs include reducing class size from kindergarten through third grade, and earned income tax credits.

-- Jennifer Thomas

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SOURCE: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, news release, December 2009