Professor Neil Pearce: problem beyond the
reach of Health Minister.
Growing gap in life expectancy
The gap in life expectancy between rich
and poor is continuing to increase, according to new research from
the Centre for Public Health Research.
Centre director Professor Neil Pearce has already studied social
class differences and death rates over two periods in the mid-70s
mid-80s. Working with Professor Peter Davis and Andrew Sporle at
the University of Otagos Christchurch School of Medicine,
hes now updated these figures with a similar analysis for
Classification of the mortality data was based on the current, or
most recent occupation. The findings have just been published in
The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.
Professor Pearce says death rates have generally dropped and life
expectancy has improved during the past century. This has mainly
been due to better living conditions such as better housing, improved
nutrition and recent decreases in smoking. Some of these declines
have been quite marked there was a 21 percent drop between
1985 and 1995. But set against that, the difference in death rates
between the wealthiest and the least advantaged socio-economic groups
has not diminished, and may have even increased.
Professor Pearce says in any given year, if a group of unskilled
manual workers is compared to a group of professionals, twice as
many manual workers will die. That was the case in the 70s
and 80s, and now we find its also true for the 90s. If anything
the gap has widened. The risk of dying was 1.8 times higher in unskilled
manual workers in the 70s. Today it is 2.3 times.
He says although some of the deaths are due to the nature of work
to manual workers having more accidents on the job
most can be traced to general living conditions.
If everybody was as healthy and lived as long as those in
the professional and managerial group, then the death rate overall
would be about one-third lower than it is now. Thats a huge
figure roughly equivalent to eliminating cancer and all smoking-related
Professor Pearce says the social class differences in life expectancy
are spread along a continuum, from poor to wealthy. Some health
problems, such as heart disease, have traditionally been associated
with stressed-out executives. The reality today is that they actually
have less stressful jobs, can work out at the gym, have check-ups
and find it easier to adopt a healthy lifestyle.
Now, the highest risk of death by heart attack is within the
unemployed and the unskilled manual workers. These workers have
the more stressful jobs, and they dont have the same healthy
Professor Pearce says if youre poor, if youre struggling
to survive and smoking helps get you through the week, then its
quite difficult to completely turn your life around. Many reports
have already identified these problems the issue now is to
do something about it.
Changing one component wont do it, these things come
in a package. We know that political changes since Rogernomics have
resulted in the biggest growth of inequality in any OECD country,
also increasing the gap in life expectancy.
So when it comes to political solutions, Cabinet ministers
covering health, education, finance, housing, social welfare and
employment must all address these issues. It cant be done
by the Minister of Health alone. Right now, we dont seem to
be closing the gaps; instead they are growing wider.