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Independent association between socio-economic status and physical functioning in older age

Focusing on prioritising healthy ageing globally in the face of poor socio-economic circumstances 

Focusing on prioritising healthy ageing globally in the face of poor socio-economic circumstances 

Years of good physical functioning are lost due to poor socio-economic status. Picture: Alamy

Preventing early death is important, but so is minimising the time that people spend living with disability and dependence.

The world’s population is ageing rapidly so healthy ageing is a public health priority. Known risk factors for dependency in later life are diabetes, high alcohol intake, high blood pressure, obesity, physical inactivity and smoking.

Physical functioning

This study aimed to assess the extent to which socio-economic status also contributes to loss of physical functioning and dependency for older people.

The study examined data from 109,107 people aged 45–90 from 24 countries around the world. Socio-economic status referred to the person’s position in the social hierarchy measured by indicators such as occupational group, educational attainment, level of income and wealth and place of residence.

As a measure of physical functioning researchers used walking speed because walking is a complex task requiring energy, balance, movement control and coordination of the musculoskeletal, nervous, respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

Results and implications for practice

By the age of 60, around six years of good physical functioning were lost due to poor socio-economic circumstances. Those with lower socio-economic status are known to have reduced life expectancy but there is an even higher number of years of good physical functioning lost to these people.

Focusing solely on mortality underestimates the potential benefit of targeting poor socio-economic circumstances.

The years of functioning lost due to these factors were particularly great in high-income countries. This emphasises the need to promote childhood development and education and tackle poverty and living circumstances to reduce dependency in old age.


About the author

Ruth Sander is independent consultant in care of older people

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