Health gap between high and low paid workers widens in retirement

Health gap between high and low paid workers widens in retirement

A large UK study suggests that the health gap between low and high paid workers not only continues but widens in retirement and early old age.

The study is published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Researchers from the International Institute for Society and Health, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, UK, reviewed records on 10,308 male and female office-based civil servants who were part of the Whitehall II Study and for which information on physical and mental health and work circumstances was collected 5 times between 1985 and 2004.

Participants were aged between 35 and 55 at the start of the study and worked in 20 different civil service departments in and around London. The average follow-up period was 18 years.

The main analysis focused on physical and mental health outcomes as measured by the SF-36 self-report questionnaires that the participants filled in 5 times over the 20 years or so of follow up.

The results showed that:

-- Physical health got worse with age among participants in lower job grades.

-- The average gap in physical health scores between high and low job grades at age 56 was 1.60, and this went up to 2.60 over 20 years.

-- At 70 years of age, a person from a high grade job had an average physical health score similar to that of a person from a low grade job 8 years younger.

-- In mid-life this gap was only 4.5 years.

-- Although mental health was found to improve with age, the pace was slower for people in the lower grades.

the researchers concluded that:

-- Social inequalities in self reported health increase in early old age.

-- People from lower occupational grades age faster because their physical health deteriorates more quickly than people from higher grades.

-- This widening gap is significant for public health because the UK population is getting older.

Speculating on the results, one of the co-authors said that the gap could be explained by a number of things, including the effect of income and lifestyle.

For instance, having more money in old age helps people afford a more active social life and to buy healthier foods.

The researchers suggest more studies are needed to look into the ways in which people occupy themselves in retirement and how this affects health.

The Whitehall I and II Studies are a long term research programme following a cohort of British male and female civil servants and looking at the impact that work, home and community has on their health.

Although the participants are predominantly from the civil service, the researchers often say in their findings that they believe their conclusions to be valid for other occupations of a similar type, that is all office based, or white collar, workers.

The results of these studies are now informing research and policy at government level.

Whitehall is the name of the road in London where the headquarters of the Civil Service is based.

"Social inequalities in self reported health in early old age: follow-up of prospective cohort study."

Tarani Chandola 1, Jane Ferrie, Amanda Sacker, and Michael Marmot.

BMJ, doi:10.1136/bmj.39167.439792.55 (published 27 April 2007).

Click here for Abstract.

Click here for more information on the Whitehall II Study (online booklet, requires PDF reader).


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