The gap between the richest and poorest in society is likely to widen in terms of early death as a new study shows that the health of the poorest in Britain is worse than that of those born a century ago.

The large nationally representative study of more than 200,000 working-age people was published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health and signals future pressure on health services.

Using the General Household Survey for 1979-2011 from people living in England, Wales and Scotland a nationally representative 3-year ’health’ snapshot of the generations born between 1920 and 1970 was created.

It specifically looked at the differences in the prevalence of long-term conditions and self reported general health between the richest and the poorest 30 to 59 year- olds for this period.

Health inequalities have been shown to be increasing in Britain since the 1970s by socioeconomic indicators, including occupational social class, employment status and education. Less is known about health inequalities by income and whether these are increasing or decreasing across birth cohorts.

Study author Dr Stephen Jivraj, Research Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, found that inequalities in the prevalence of long term conditions between the richest and poorest households had doubled among women and by 1.5 times among men born in 1920-22 compared with those born in 1968-70.

Widening in health inequalities by income getting worse

Results found that one in four (26%) men born in 1920-22, living in the poorest households, said they had a limiting illness compared with around one in six (16%) in the richest households. For men born in 1968-70, more than a third (35%) of those living in the poorest households reported a limiting illness compared with only around one in 10 (11%) of those living in the richest households. 

For women born in 1920-22, around one in seven (15%) living in the poorest households reported ‘not good’ health compared with nearly one in 10 (8%) in the richest households. For women born in 1968-70, around one in five (19%) said their health wasn’t ‘good’ compared with around one in 10 (9%) in the richest households.

Dr Stephen Jivraj said: “The results presented here show a widening in health inequalities by income in later-born British birth cohorts, 1920-70. They point to a greater future demand in healthcare from people in society who will be least capable of managing their health as they enter ages when [ill health] becomes more common.

“This is doubly important because of the growing size of later-born postwar baby boom cohorts up to 1972 that will mean that there is likely to be more people in poor health irrespective of relative declines in the prevalence of [long term conditions] in later born postwar cohorts."