A study published this week found that the life expectancy of Americans with low incomes is substantially lower than those with higher incomes, although the gap between income levels varies widely by geography (Source: “Income inequality is chipping away at Americans’ life expectancy,” Vox, April 11, 2016).
According to the study, publishing in JAMA, men who were among the top 1 percent of income earners lived 15 years longer than men in the bottom 1 percent. For women at the extremes of the income distribution, life expectancy differed by 10 years.
But there's evidence that the gaps aren't inevitable and vary significantly from region to region. The New York Times created an interactive county-level map to illustrate the geographical variations in life expectancy.
In an accompanying editorial, Steven Woolf, director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Center on Society and Health, and Jason Purnell of Washington University write that the study findings should be a call to action for physicians to not only consider how social status and income may affect their patients' health, but also to reach beyond medicine and work with others across sectors in order to improve the health of populations.
"Clinicians and health care systems find it unrealistic and overwhelming to tackle complex social problems, but they are not alone," Woolf and Purnell write. "Teachers, police officers, parents, employers, and many others also feel powerless to solve social problems without partners. Meaningful change requires broader thinking. ... As the history of tobacco control teaches, multilevel interventions across the socioecological framework— from legislation to marketing — are essential to advance population health."