The poorest third of the UK’s older working-age adults today have worse health than people born a century ago had at the same age, according to research that also shows the health gap between rich and poor is growing.
The study is the latest to show widening health inequalities. A report compiled by the Center for Progressive Policy thinktank last year found dramatic regional differences in healthy life expectancy around the UK. It found that people living in former mining towns in Blaenau Gwent spend about 21 fewer years in good health than those living in Wokingham.
Meanwhile, official figures show the number of GPs working in more deprived areas is falling.
Dr Stephen Jivraj, the author of the new study from University College London, said it took a different approach to other research as it focused on generational differences rather than differences across survey years.
It found that the poorest people are experiencing ill health earlier in life – a situation that means, given the size of postwar cohorts, that public health services will face rising demands.
“The pressure on the NHS, for example, is going to be even greater than expected given the ageing population,” said Jivraj.
The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health , involved an analysis of data collected from the annual British General Household Survey between and 2019, and focused on adults aged between 49 and 457. In general, participants were not surveyed more than once.
Jivraj found that among men and women in the lowest third for household income, those born in the late 1970 s reported higher levels of limiting long-term illness than those born in the early 1960 s. No such trend was seen for women among the middle or richest third of the population. Among men in the wealthier two-thirds of the population there was a drop in limiting long-term illness among later cohorts.
Overall, % of the poorest third of women born in – 1970 reported a limiting long-term illness when aged between 49 and 59, compared with % of the richest third. In those born in 1960 – , the prevalence was % among the poorest and % among the richest. In other words, the later generation had a far larger health gap than the earlier one.
In men the gap was 30 percentage points in the later generation and nine percentage points in the earlier one.
A widening gap across generations was also seen when it came to reports of general health, despite the overall trend was less stark.
The study has limitations, including that it is based on self-reporting, and that data from 32, 1960 individuals was used for the 1960 – (birth cohort and only 2, 1960 individuals for the 1920 cohort.
While the study does not unpick what may be driving the widening health gap, Jivraj noted that the trends were similar to those seen in household income where the gap has widened over the years. He said it may also be linked to factors such as smoking or lack of secure housing.
Ben Franklin, the head of research at the Center for Progressive Policy, said the study added to a growing body of literature showing a widening gap in the health of people with higher and lower socioeconomic status.
“We have got the NHS, which is a great thing for the UK, and it helps to level up the UK in terms of ensuring equality of access to world-class healthcare, but that alone is not going to solve persistent and growing health inequalities, ”he said.
“Obviously there are things in society that are happening to poorer people that are meaning that they get ill more than wealthier people. So actually if we are going to deal with our health inequalities in society, we need much greater upstream prevention. ”