Healthy Lifestyles of the Not So Rich & Famous

By Martha Michael

Study after study supports the idea that there’s a link between financial situation and health habits. But research at the Zilber School of Public Health at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and reported in Science Daily adds another nuance to the usual analysis.

Results from research offers evidence that a person’s feeling of being poor -- not just their actual income -- can be a predictor of his or her health risk behaviors.  

Looking at patterns in lower income individuals in three Massachusetts cities, the university study found several factors predicting the likelihood that lifestyles of the subjects would include unhealthy eating choices, sedentary behavior and smoking. The predictors include:

  • Age
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Education
  • Birth country
  • Language
  • Perceived financial hardships

Instead of just looking at an individual’s income to determine financial hardship, researchers asked participants to report how able they were to pay their bills each month. Subjects who felt more financially solvent ate healthier and were less likely to smoke than those who said they were strapped for cash.

As for sedentary behavior, the experts found that the state of your financial situation had little to no effect on the amount of time you spend sitting. During the study, women were less likely to report unhealthy eating habits than men, but more willing to report smoking.

The Need to Talk About It

The unusual angle on examining the connection between financial situation and unhealthy choices serves an important purpose, says Cheri Wilson, MA, MHS, assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It underscores the need to discuss health and lack of means beyond seeing socioeconomic status as the only cause of disparities. Judgment by others is a common feature, where people in comfortable financial situations judge the choices made by those without money.

“Rather than calling a patient who hasn't followed advice to improve health habits noncompliant, really helping him would require making suggestions that account for the resources available in his environment,” Wilson says.

She urges a rise by leaders in the health industry to consider various predictors of health behaviors. She believes that financial hardship is a better predictor than just socioeconomic status (income or education) and "supports the notion that economic policy is health policy."

Researchers are banking on the idea that broadening perspectives about what prompts healthy living will dispel simple theories such as low-income individuals don’t make healthy lifestyle choices. In this case we learned our choices have less to do with our fortune and more to do with how fortunate we feel.