Income and Life Expectancy

Today’s New York Times has an excellent article on income and longevity that compares Fairfax County, Virginia, to McDowell County, West Virginia. In Fairfax, median household income is $107,000. In McDowell it’s about one-fifth of that. In Fairfax, the average life expectancy for men is 82. For women it’s 85. In McDowell, the comparable life expectancies are 64 and 73.

On average, men in McDowell County don’t survive into the age cohort the Over 65 blog is about!

In 1975 Samuel Preston used data from the 1900s, 1930s and 1960s to show that the relationship between greater wealth and longer life is a worldwide phenomenon, a finding named for him as the “Preston Curve.” The correlation is well-established. The causative factors are less clear, and most likely include health behaviors such as smoking, community factors such as access to affordable nutritious foods, poverty-related factors such as chronic stress, and more.

Liberals focus on income inequity as the core problem. Conservatives focus on individual responsibility for health-related behaviors as the core problem. In all likelihood, each “side” is allied with a portion of the truth. But whatever the causative mechanisms, in the U.S. the correlation between income inequality and divergent life expectancy is getting stronger. The current effort to raise the minimum wage is a small step in the right direction.

Jim Sabin, M.D., 74, is an organizer of Over 65, a clinical professor of population medicine and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and a Fellow of the Hastings Center.







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