The poorest in UK are living longer, but it seems they feel worse

27th Jan 2020


Poor British adults are less healthy than they were a generation before.


This comes from research on how people feel about their health, which is not necessarily the same as how healthy they are. Life expectancy in low income households has risen, which suggests that their general health may not be worse.

“Health of poor British adults is now WORSE than it was for those who grew up in the Great Depression” 

MailOnline, 20 January 2020

“Health of poorest adults in Britain today 'worse than it was for those born in 1920'”

The Herald, 21 January 2020

“Poorest adults in worse health now than older generation – study” 

The Guardian, 21 January 2020

An important distinction got lost in some headlines last week about the health of adults in the poorest households in the UK.

Many newspapers reported new research by Dr Stephen Jivraj at University College London, which analysed survey data on the health of people in the UK. This found that middle-aged people in the poorest third of households became more likely to report a life-limiting illness or general poor health between 1979 and 2011. Meanwhile, the experience of the richest third hardly changed. In other words, the health of poorer people had got worse, and the gap between them and the richest had grown wider.

Health inequality is real, and several studies provide evidence that the gap between the richest and poorest is widening. 

But Dr Jivraj’s research does not say that people on low incomes are objectively in worse health than a generation before, as suggested by the press. 

Measuring how many people report poor health does not necessarily tell you how healthy they are. We know, for example, that life expectancy rose substantially in the 20th and early-21st centuries, including for people on low incomes and people doing unskilled manual work. This suggests that the general health of the whole UK has improved.

The research paper itself says that different generations might report illness and disability in different ways, because “those in lower-income groups born later… [could] have greater expectations of their own health”. By contrast, the oldest people in the study grew up before the foundation of the NHS. 

It is also possible that some middle-aged people in poor health today might have died before reaching middle-age in the past, thereby making previous generations of middle-aged people look healthier than they actually were.

Dr Jivraj did not take account of this in his research, but said when we contacted him that he thought the effect would be small. We’re going to look into this issue in more depth, and will update this article if necessary.