A new study shows that poor people age more quickly than the rich, losing their strength and sight at younger ages

A new study shows that poor people age more quickly than the rich, losing their strength and sight at younger ages
REUTERS/ Christian Hartmann
  • A study out today analyzed the long-term health of 5,000 people over the age of 52 across four different average wealth brackets.
  • The study found that those in the lowest wealth bracket experienced significant declines in physical health, cognitive ability, and social ties compared to those in the highest wealth bracket.
  • Those impacts ranged from slower walking speeds to worse eyesight to fewer close relationships.

Studies have shown that people living in poverty are more at risk for chronic health conditions throughout their lives.

New research from University College London shows that people with less wealth also show the physical effects of aging more quickly than their wealthier counterparts, as well.

Those effects range from slower walking and lower lung functioning to losing sight earlier and having worse memory.

Those with less wealth face an early 'accelerated decline' in physical health

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, followed 5,000 people in the UK aged 52 and over across a range of wealth levels for nearly a decade. Researchers divided them into four groups according to wealth. The highest had an average wealth of about $834,000; the second-highest, an average of $310,263; the second-lowest, about $180,000; and the lowest, about $32,000.

The researchers chose wealth as the best indicator of financial status for older people, since education, occupation, or income tend to be better measures of finances during the middle of people's lives.


They found that after about eight years, those at the lower wealth levels saw "accelerated decline" in physical health, cognitive ability, emotional well-being, and social traits.

The findings suggest that "less affluent sectors of society age more rapidly than more privileged groups," the researchers wrote.

Researchers found that those with lower wealth levels had worse cognitive ability, such as memory and verbal skills. They also found that those with less wealth showed greater declines in physical health, like slower walking speed, grip strength, and sight and hearing impairment.

For example, the decrease in walking speed over the course of the study was 38% greater among those with the least wealth, compared to the richest group.

In addition, about 16% of those with the least wealth reported sight issues — compared to 10% in the wealthiest category.


A new study shows that poor people age more quickly than the rich, losing their strength and sight at younger ages
David Becker/Getty Images

Those with less wealth also lose social ties and report lower emotional well-being

Those in the less wealthy categories were also more likely to lose social ties as they aged. The researchers measured social traits by asking participants how many close relationships they had, including children, other family, and friends. They also asked whether participants volunteered or belonged to organizations like social clubs, church groups, and resident organizations.

They found that those in higher wealth categories maintained the number of close relationships they had and organizations they participated in over eight years. Those in lower wealth categories tended to lose some of these ties and participate in fewer groups over time.

In addition, older people with lower wealth levels reported significantly "lower positive well-being and an increased prevalence of depressive symptoms" than those with higher wealth levels.

These reported changes can't be traced back to any particular source, the researchers said, but rather, show how all-encompassing having wealth is in providing better health outcomes.


"No single factor is likely to drive these associations between the extent of age-related decline" with wealth levels, the researchers wrote.

The researchers did list some reasons that the wealthy may experience age-related decline more slowly. They said wealthy people may have access to more cultural resources and to more stimulating environments, as well as to gyms and green spaces. Plus, they said people with low wealth may experience more stress over their lives, and also may be exposed to more pollution.

More studies on the specific cellular aging processes could help discover the specific levers behind these disparities, the researchers said.