Social circumstances may have pervasive effects on core aging processes, new British research suggests.
It found that low socioeconomic status (SES) is associated with an accelerated decline across a broad range of age-related physical, mental, and social functions, independent of diagnosed illnesses and self-rated health.
Past research has shown that low SES increases the risk of premature death and serious health problems, but it has not been clear whether it also is associated with accelerated decline in age-related functions that are not directly related to health conditions.
To investigate, Andrew Steptoe and Paola Zaninotto from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London examined the relationship between wealth and the rate of age-related decline in physical, sensory, physiological, cognitive, emotional, and social functions.
The participants included a representative sample of 5018 adults aged 52 years or older from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.
The analysis, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that over a period of six to eight years, less wealthy individuals showed greater deterioration across all domains.
This was evident for grip strength, gait speed, physical activity, lung function, memory, executive function, processing speed, and enjoyment of life.
In addition, SES was inversely associated with incidence of sight problems and depressive symptoms, and directly associated with the likelihood of volunteering and regularly engaging in cultural activities.
Associations were independent of age, gender, ethnicity, educational attainment, and childhood SES as well as reported illness status.
“No single factor is likely to drive these associations between the extent of age-related decline and SES,” the authors write in a paper in. “Rather, multiple processes associated with SES disparities may contribute to different domains of function.
“For instance, greater wealth may provide a pathway toward more mentally stimulating environments and cultural resources that will impact on cognitive and social function; better access to green spaces and exercise facilities may enhance physical activity and help maintain physical capability; wealth may be directly related to eye care; and greater chronic life stress in less affluent groups may influence mental well-being and inflammation, while exposure to environmental pollution may promote faster decline in lung function among lower SES groups.”
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