The average low-income person loses 8.2 years of perfect health, the average high school dropout loses 5.1 years, and the obese lose 4.2 years, according to researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Tobacco control has long been one of the most important public health policies, and rightly so; the average smoker loses 6.6 years of perfect health to their habit. But the nation’s huge high school dropout rate and poverty rates are typically not seen as health problems.
This new study published in the December 2009 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, shows that poverty and dropout rates are at least as important a health problem as smoking in the United States. These researchers define “low-income” as household earnings below 200% of the Federal Poverty Line, or roughly the bottom third of the U.S. population.
Building on prior research, the researchers examined health disparities resulting from an individual’s membership in a socially identifiable and disadvantaged group compared with membership in a non-disadvantaged counterpart. Although public health policy has always been directed at individual social and behavioral risks, until now there had been little systematic investigation of their relative contribution to U.S. population health. The researchers were not able to capture all population health risks. For instance, they did not include an analysis of transportation policy, which can affect health through reduced accidents, reduced pollution, and increased exercise.
“The smaller impact of schooling in our analyses probably had a lot to do with the fact that we are only measuring the health of people in the general population. We miss those in prisons and chronic care facilities, most of whom lack a high school diploma. If we captured these individuals, the numbers would be higher.
“As with other burden of disease studies, the policies we identify will not eliminate the risk factor in the population; our estimates can only serve as guideposts for policymakers,” says Dr. Muennig.
About the Mailman School of Public Health
The only accredited school of public health in New York City and among the first in the nation, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health pursues an agenda of research, education, and service to address the critical and complex public health issues affecting millions of people locally and globally. The Mailman School is the recipient of some of the largest government and private grants in Columbia University’s history. Its more than 1000 graduate students pursue master’s and doctoral degrees, and the School’s 300 multi-disciplinary faculty members work in more than 100 countries around the world, addressing such issues as infectious and chronic diseases, health promotion and disease prevention, environmental health, maternal and child health, health over the life course, health policy, and public health preparedness. www.mailman.columbia.edu
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