Money can buy a longer life, but not smoking much more effective

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Affluent people are more likely to have a longer lifespan, but if they smoke cigarettes, money does them no good. According to new research, not smoking is twice as good for health as a high income. It improves the chances of living to a ripe old age by 37 percent, say scientists from Georgetown University and the University of California, Riverside.

On the other hand, having $300,000 increases the likelihood of living from 65 to 85 by 19 percent. The study of 6,300 people concludes that wealth is a better predictor of mortality than education, occupation, income or childhood socioeconomic status.

“Health care practitioners cannot modify their patient’s wealth, but they should continue to discourage smoking,” says lead author Dr. Dana Glei, a senior research investigator at Georgetown University’s Center for Population and Health, in a statement. “Wealth may be associated with longevity, but just don’t smoke.”

Participants were aged 25 to 74 and tracked for around 18 years with more than a third under 40. “In this life stage, individuals are developing their career and starting to accumulate wealth,” says Glei.

Although death rates remain low at these young ages, increased mortality among working-age individuals was the main reason for the three-year consecutive decline in life expectancy during 2015 to 2017. The first $50,000 in assets reduced mortality rates by 22% whereas the next $50,000 produced a significant 17% decrease. Another $50,000 adds a mere 5% reduction.

“In fact, we found no significant differences across groups with $50,000 to $299,999 in wealth. However, those with $300,000 to $499,999 had 41% lower mortality rates than those with only $200,000 to $299,999,” the authors write.

Above $500,000, additional wealth yielded no mortality dividend. However, the disparity between never and current smokers was the largest.

“Adjusted for age, sex, and race, the mortality disparity by wealth was larger than the disparities by education, occupation, income, or childhood socioeconomic status, especially at the oldest ages,” the study explains. “The estimated probability of surviving from age 65 to 85 years was 19 percent higher for persons with at least $300,000 in wealth than for those with no assets. But there was a much larger 37 percentage point differential between never smokers and current smokers.”

Results show mortality disparities by wealth are larger than those associated with other indicators of socioeconomic status, but smoking has a far greater influence.

“The positive association between socioeconomic status and longevity is well established. Although much of the literature relies on education or income as a proxy measure, some studies have focused on wealth. Because both income and wealth inequality have increased substantially since the late 1980s, examining wealth as a factor associated with differential longevity has also become more salient,” the authors write. “In this cohort study, the fully adjusted disparity in mortality associated with wealth beyond age 65 years remained sizable but was much smaller than the smoking differential.”

Previous research concludes that smoking can knock a decade off a person’s life. Scientists have calculated that each cigarette takes 11 minutes away, on average.

“Our results suggest that even if wealth has a causal effect on mortality, it cannot compete with the impact of smoking. If you want to live longer, you better avoid the cancer sticks,” Glei concludes.

The findings are published in JAMA Network Open.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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