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Being poor could be the greatest health burden

December 22, 2009 |  3:19 pm

Poverty trumps smoking, obesity and education as a health burden, potentially causing a loss of 8.2 years of perfect health, according to a new study.

Kuwl4unc Researchers looked at health and life expectancy data from the National Health Interview Surveys and the Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys and came up with various behavioral and social risk factors that affect quality of life, then used a formula to estimate the quality-adjusted years of life that would be lost.

The average person whose income level is below 200% of the federal poverty line (the bottom third of the country's population) would lose an estimated 8.2 years of perfect health, smokers 6.6 years, high school dropouts 5.1 years and the obese 4.2 years. Binge drinking and being uninsured were at the bottom.

Risk factors were determined by previously published literature and from the information provided in both surveys. Behavioral risk factors included smoking, being overweight or obese, and binge drinking. Social risk factors included socioeconomic status, race (non-Latino black versus non-Latino white), absence of health insurance and education (less than 12 years of school versus more than 12 years).

"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," said Dr. Peter Muennig, assistant professor of health policy and management at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and lead author of the study.

The research is published online in the American Journal of Public Health.

— Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Alik Keplicz / Associated Press