Health Matters by Dr.Paul: Health and Poverty

When one talks about the effects of poverty, people tend to automatically think that it is related to material things like not having enough money to purchase a variety of items. However, poverty has been associated with more than that. In fact, it has been associated with poor health. Many studies have confirmed that the poorer one is, the less healthy he or she is. For example, a Canadian National Population Health Survey (1997) revealed that rates of chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, cancer and cataracts were higher among the poor as compared to those with higher income. The same survey showed that among 12-year-old children, the rates of very good health increased with the family income. It is also known that obesity is higher among the poorer as compared to the rich, and this, across all ages. A study in Winnipeg comparing rates of deaths in adults showed that the rates of premature deaths were the highest among the poorest population. Even life expectancy depends on poverty levels. The poorer have a lower life expectancy as compared to the richer. Reflecting the impact of poverty, a 2011 federal government report estimated that the poverty related illness accounts for about 20% of our overall health spending.

Another fact relates to access to health care and services. Poorer women report a lower rate of Pap Tests (screening for cervical cancer) and mammograms as compared to their richer counterparts. Even post heart attack care rates, consultation and investigation are lower in the poorer. It is important to note that these are Canadian data, where health care access is “universal”.

Poverty is a determinant of health, and really is an example of how our environment or surrounding affects our well-being. There is no medical or biological reason that explains the different rates of illness. Other determinants include education level, race, family setting and status as well as where one lives. Often, the poorer have several factors working against them. For example, single-parent families tend to have very low incomes, live in poorer, less-serviced areas and tend to be more isolated. All of these factors together play a role in decreasing the quality of health.

Going back to poverty, I want to focus on the long-term effects of being poor. For adults, it does translate into higher rates of disease and premature death.  Sadly, the American Cancer Society has characterized poverty as an official “carcinogen”. Carcinogen means something that causes cancer. What about the effect of poverty on children? What a child is exposed to early in life can translate into long-term illness in adulthood. For example, low birth weight, which tends to occur in the poor more often, is now associated with increased rates of a whole slew of illnesses later in life as compared to babies born with a normal birth weight. Given these long term outcomes, it is especially vital that society understands the effects of poverty and works collectively to address this issue. I hope that after reading this, you have a better understanding of the relationship between health and poverty. Please pass the word around.

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