As the life expectancy gap widens between the rich and poor and suicides increase at alarming rates, could financial stress be a contributor to both?
Life expectancy continues to improve for the wealthiest top 1 percent. They’ve gained three years in this century alone. However, the poorest are not seeing the same gains. The top 1 percent in income-earners among American men live 15 years longer than the poorest 1 percent; for women, the gap is 10 years.
Recent research published in JAMA documented the widening gap in life expectancy between the rich and the poor. Researchers found that while geographic location barely affected the life expectancy of the affluent, the outcome for poor Americans was significantly different by location. You can look up the life expectancy by U.S. county for a 40-year-old male with household income below $28,000 using this interactive map. Except for the poor in some of the largest cities, their life spans mostly fall short of their richer counterparts.
While this gap widens, suicide rates are also increasing. A federal data analysis published last week found that suicide has increased by 24 percent between 1999 and 2014. The suicide rate is the highest in 30 years in every age group, except older adults, and is rising the fastest for White women.
Life expectancy and suicide rates highlight the link between poverty and health.
The JAMA study found that part of the reason for longer life expectancies of high-income people had to do with their likelihood of having healthy behaviors. The wealthy exercise more, have less stress, don’t smoke and are less likely to be obese. These findings aren’t surprising. Higher incomes buy you access to healthy foods, nearby gyms, and safe spaces to be active outside. It buys you more time to focus on a healthy lifestyle, helping to decrease stress, instead of running between three jobs and barely making rent. Studies have found that stressful jobs—those where individuals are more likely to get laid off, lack benefits, work longer hours, and get paid less—are linked to shorter life spans. No surprise then that higher-income workers have been found to have longer life expectancies.
But health behaviors are only an intermediary, not the root cause. Between 1999 and 2014, less educated, rural-dwelling people had the greatest increase in suicide rates. In general, these were the same people most impacted by the recession. Rising rates of suicide have coincided with rising rates of distress about jobs and finances.
Annual increases in rates doubled after 2006 when the economy deteriorated and many were left unemployed. A comparison of the suicide rates, life expectancy and poverty rates by state suggests that states with higher suicide rates are likely to have higher rates of poverty and lower life expectancies. Four of the five states with the lowest life expectancies – Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia – all fell within the top third or top half of states with the highest suicide rates.
Although rising rates of finance-related stress coincided with increased suicides and slow growth in life expectancy for the poor, it certainly isn’t the sole cause. Substance abuse rates have increased, especially among less educated, rural, White women. Less educated, rural-dwelling women also had the greatest increase in suicide rates. This certainly calls attention to the need for increased mental health interventions.
Additionally, I would argue that interventions aiming to alleviate financial stress could also be a potential avenue to explore to increase life expectancy for the poor and decrease suicide rates. Interventions such as access to affordable housing, employment and job training for low-income groups and recently released incarcerated individuals, workforce development and money management programs and policies could also help. While it needs to be further explored, decreased financial stress could prove to be an important mechanism for public health officials to prevent suicide and improve life expectancy for the most at-risk.