Most Australians are aware of the disparity in wealth that exists between different communities in our cities, suburbs and towns.
Most would also like to believe that the result of those disparities revolve around non-essential aspects of life. A better or newer television, for example. What we would hope is that wealth disparity does not equal health disparity.
Sadly, though, new research suggests that is indeed the case in Australia. Despite a healthcare system renowned and lauded for delivering quality care regardless of financial status, being poorer reduces life expectancy significantly, the data shows.
These concerning findings are reported in a new study from the University of Sydney published in Health Economics last month.
The authors, Associate Professor Kadir Atalay, Professor Rebecca Edwards and Reserve Bank analyst Fiona Georgiakakis, examined the evolution of Australian mortality inequality between 2001 and 2018.
Internationally, there is growing evidence that life expectancy gains are not being shared equally among the rich and the poor. The researchers wanted to see if a similar health disparity story was unfolding here in Australia.
Measuring health disparity
Focusing specifically on mortality rates, the analysis combined data from two main sources. Socioeconomic indicators were obtained from the Australian Census, with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare providing death registry data.
The combined analysis revealed that, on average, richer people have lower mortality rates than poorer people. For some groups, the mortality inequality observed by the authors is getting worse.
Analysis of the data indicates a significant increase in mortality inequality for middle-aged males and females. This finding is worth clarifying.
Those in a lower socio-economic group in 2001 were more likely to die than those from a higher socio-economic group. Today, more than 20 years later, that likelihood is still true, but the odds have shifted even further against the lower socio-economic group.
Looking more closely at this middle-aged group, the authors identified two specific subgroups for which the change was greatest. Those subgroups were males aged 45 to 54 and females aged 55 to 64.
In short, poorer women approaching retirement age are now worse off in terms of longevity than two decades ago when compared to richer women. It is the same for poorer men 10 years younger.
What’s driving the gap wider?
For the two middle-aged subgroups in which mortality inequality has widened significantly, one cause stood out – cancer. The report states that, “it appears that for the middle-aged, higher mortality inequality is being driven by cancer deaths”.
Deaths by cancer was the biggest factor in the widening health disparity for females, the researchers found. The report states: “For women, there is significant increasing cancer mortality inequality for all age groups 45 and above.”
While those revelations identify the groups driving the gap wider, it does not reveal exactly why people from lower socio-economic backgrounds die from cancer at a higher rate.
The data does throw up one possibility. It reveals a correlation between lower death rates and higher availability of healthcare professionals per capita.
In other words, those from richer areas have greater access to healthcare services and therefore live longer. In poorer and more rural areas the availability of healthcare is lower.
Other possible factors for the health disparity were a higher incidence of disease risk factors, such as smoking and obesity in poorer areas. Others include greater occupational risks and lower levels of income, education, and employment.
Overall, the life expectancy for all Australians continues to rise. The truth is, though, that the odds are more heavily in favour of the richer among us.
What do you think of these findings? Is it fair that the health disparity gap is growing for middle-aged Australians? Let us know in the comments section below.
Also read: The countries with the longest life expectancy
Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.