News Release

Lifelong gap in health between rich and poor set by age 20

Study by McGill geography professor finds that as people age, the differnce in the health-related quality of life between rich and poor remains constant

Peer-Reviewed Publication

McGill University

"We can't buy our way out of ageing," says Nancy Ross, a McGill geography professor. "As we get older we start to have vision problems, maybe some hearing loss, maybe lose some mobility – ageing is a kind of a social equalizer."

Ross is the lead author of a new study about how socio-economic and educational status affects Canadians' health-related quality of life over the course of a lifetime.

"My research looks at how poverty and social disadvantage affect your health status. Our work was about using social circumstances as a lens to look at how people's quality of life changes as they age."

The good news, according to Ross, is that there is no sign of an accelerated ageing process for those who are lower on the social ladder. "The trajectories for declining health as people age look fairly similar across the social spectrum. That surprised me. I thought that there would be a bit more of a difference across social groups."

But the bad news is that Canadians who are less educated and have a lower income start out less healthy than their wealthier and better-educated compatriots, and remain so over the course of their lives. "What we found, basically, is that people who are more educated and with higher incomes have a better health-related quality of life over their whole lifespan, and that these health "tracks" stay pretty parallel over time.

"The message there is that if you start out with a health-related quality of life deficit through early life experience and a poor educational background, it's never made up for later on," says Ross. "Poorer Canadians are in poorer health and they have lower life expectancy than their more affluent counterparts, and by age 20 the pattern for health-related quality of life as people age is already fixed."

"We might speculate that universal health insurance and other social policies directed to adults and seniors have played a role in preventing accelerated decline in health-related quality of life of the poorer and less educated Canadians. That said, we would need some comparative research in other countries to test this more fully," she adds. "But this study suggests the need for policies aimed at making sure kids and teens are given the chances early in life to even out socio-economic inequalities that will affect their health as they age."


The study analyzed data gathered from 17,000 Canadians who were questioned about their health seven times over a period of 16 years, between 1994/1995 and 2006/2007, by the National Population Health Survey.

The research was funded by the National Institute on Aging, the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and the Fonds de la recherche en santé du Québec.

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The research team responsible for this article was:

Nancy A Ross, Department of Geography, McGill University
Rochelle Garner, Julie Bernier, and Jillian Oderkirk, Health Analysis Division, Statistics Canada,
David H Feeny, Kaiser Permanente Northwest Center for Health Research, Portland, Oregon
Mark S Kaplan, School of Community Health, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon
Bentson McFarland, Department of Psychiatry, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, Oregon
Heather M Orpana, School of Psychology, University of Ottawa

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