Study Calls Poverty a ‘Major Risk Factor for Death in the U.S.’

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April 19, 2023 – More than 183,000 people in the United States died in 2019 largely because of poverty. That’s as many lives as claimed by Alzheimer’s disease, accidents, strokes, and diabetes, and 10 times the number of homicides that year.

That figure comes from a new analysis of data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a survey that collects information about participants’ income and health, to examine associations between poverty and mortality.

David Brady, PhD, professor of public policy at University of California, Riverside, and his colleagues found that poverty, defined as less than half of the median income, was associated with lower odds of survival starting at about age 40. The difference widened until age 70.

“Ultimately, we propose that poverty should be considered a major risk factor for death in the U.S.,” Brady’s group reported this week in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Although prior research has demonstrated that poverty can be harmful to health, studies quantifying poverty’s effect on mortality have been lacking, according to the researchers. 

Looking at the period 1997 to 2019, they found that cumulative poverty – being in poverty for the past 10 years – was linked to a 70% greater risk for death than never living in poverty. Being impoverished in any given year raised a person’s risk for death by more than 40% compared with not being poor. 

The number of deaths linked to poverty was similar to estimates for obesity. Smoking, another risk factor for premature death, was associated with an estimated 480,000 deaths in 2019, the researchers noted.

The United States has high poverty rates, which may help explain why it has comparatively lower life expectancy, the researchers wrote. Brady said that policies that reduce poverty could lead to people living healthier and more productive lives.