Privilege Has Its Rewards — How Longevity Will Become The New Class Inequality

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The rich have a number of things going for them to hit a ripe old age.

Here's a news flash that isn't really new: the rich live longer than everyone else. Now, on the surface, this seems like a no-brainer. The ability to afford the best of everything should translate into better health while the inability to pay for even basic care, not to mention preventative medicine, is going to cut a person's life short. For the threshold of the average human life span to surpass say 100 years, everyone should live like the rich do. The upper class has access to better resources, such as quality food and health care. They are also more informed, have the best education and have access to more opportunities. As a result, all of these factors collectively contribute to an improved quality of life. And if infomercials for juicers have taught us anything it's that a better quality of life extends longevity.

But the proof is in the pudding...and that pudding better be full of statistics to back up this kind of claim.

Fortunately, studies have been going on for years to investigate the longevity gap. Each of the following factors help the rich live longer:

Education — It's been known for some time that educated people live longer than people who lack an education, up to 9% longer. It's speculated that perhaps the educated assess risk better, make wiser decisions, or just live healthier because they know what's good for them. Or perhaps the cells in the bodies of the less educated age faster, as one study suggests, due to a lifestyle that includes more smoking and less exercise or lifetimes that include more stress leading to disease. But a recent study showed that, when it comes to cardiovascular health, not only do the educated have lower blood pressure than those who did not finish high school, it was even lower for people with Master's degrees and doctorates. Now having an education or an advanced degree doesn't automatically translate into becoming part of the 1%, as we know from a list of billionaires, which consisted of 20% college dropouts or those who never even started college. But higher education has intangibles like being called "doctor" and doctors tend to live longer too.

Intelligence — One of the traits among billionaires is their parents have a high aptitude for math. And even in a case of hereditary wealth, being smart enough not to blow through your parent's entire inheritance is likely one of the factors that the Darwin Awards keeps an eye out for. But it seems that the biological basis for intelligence may be helpful for longevity as well. For instances, researchers using honeybees to model human learning found that the bees that were the best at learning were also able to survive the longest in high oxygen environments, which promotes the oxidation known to cause aging. It's speculated that the more fit honeybees must have a more robust antioxidant system that helps them endure stress and that this same system is underlying their higher intelligence.

The longevity gap is on the rise along with the growing income gap. (from EPI)

Social Status — Social isolation is known to decrease longevity (that's right, family and friends help extend your lifetime), but what about fame? You'd think that just being nominated for a Nobel prize would be awesome, but it turns out that winning makes all the difference when it comes to longevity. An analysis of physics and chemistry Nobel prize nominees between 1901 and 1950 found that the winners actually lived about 2 years longer than those who did not win. It was speculated that the social status bump from winning is tied to the increased lifespan as the trend is also seen in Hollywood among Oscar winners, who on average live 4 years longer than other nominees. These studies beg the question, who receives more recognition in society for successes, the rich or the poor?

Hormones A 2008 study from the English Longitudinal Study if Ageing surveyed the older population along a variety of health and wealth factors. Buried in the wealth of data they acquired were some interesting correlations between income levels and hormone levels in the body. A hormone produced by the brain called dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) is important in memory, enhancing the immune system, and a host of "anti-" effects (such as diabetes, obesity, and cancer). While DHEAS is known to decrease significantly over the course of a person's life, the study found that the highest levels were measured in rich people. Additionally, insulin-like growth factor I, which plays important metabolic roles and serves as a monitor of physical activity levels, was highest in the wealthiest group tested. As with many of the biological processes involving hormones, there's no way to determine whether increased hormone levels are promoting a certain wealthy lifestyle or whether higher incomes tend to increase these hormone production, but clearly their income is correlating with enhanced physiological processes that promote longevity among the rich.

Safety — A 2005 article in the Review of Economics and Statistics found that though disasters hit both rich and poor nations, richer nations experience less death due to disasters, attributing the ability of the institutions and government in richer nations to shield the population during the crisis. In the US, the failure to protect the poor during Hurricane Katrina was one of the biggest criticisms the Bush administration faced. And of course there's the neighbors that the rich keep. A Baltimore study found that people in the wealthiest suburbs lived 20 years longer than those in impoverished neighborhoods.

Activity — In a traditional blue collar/white collar world, it used to be that physical activity decreased as income increased, but times are changing. With decreasing number of physical labor jobs, physical activity is decreasing. In the past, jobs that had high levels of physical activity tended to be the lowest earning, so the low income segment was at least reaping some benefits of exercise to longevity, but not any more. Recent Gallup findings show that the richest people exercise the most and the benefits of exercise are reflected in your DNA.

Eat, Drink and Be Merry The rich eat better, according to a study conducted last fall, primarily because they can afford food that meets the nutritional guidelines of the food pyramid. Here are some more things that studies have shown make people live longer: smiling, as you can see in this TED talk and happiness in general. This begs the question, are rich people happier? A 2006 General Social Survey says yes. Even the month of birth affects health with spring babies having more health problems, which possibly may correlate with why more billionaires are born in the fall. And while people of all incomes can party hard, the rich clearly can afford better health care to keep themselves going, as the 2010 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being study showed with the wealthiest people having a clear well-being advantage.

The education and income trends show who is healthier too (from Forbes).

And the list can go on and on. Now when you add all of these things up, you can see how these could work together synergistically to extend the longevity of the rich. And not only are they living longer, but the lives that they do live are better because of these factors.

Currently, income inequality is getting everyone's attention because it taps into a very primal drive of ALL humans: survival. But focusing on money alone has convoluted the problem, as it seems that it's about denying the rich. Instead, framing the problem as a longevity gap helps everyone — not just the 99% — understand what is at stake. It isn't that the masses want to take the money from the rich and give it to everyone. The issue is simply that the benefits that the 1% experience that translates into a long lifetime should be attainable by all. It's utopian, for sure, but it truly is what everybody wants, rich or poor.

[Media: EPI, Forbes, sxc]

[Sources: Atlantic Wire, ELSA, Forbes]

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 7 Responses

  • dobermanmacleod March 15, 2012 on 3:00 pm

    One of the best indicators of success is the ability to postpone gratification. That would tend to corrolate with wealth and social status. Frankly, it makes me sick some of my aquaintances that can\\\’t seem to wait for what they want. Out of wedlock babies, obese, poor job performance with spotty attendence and work habits, lack of exercise, drug and drinking/smoking habits…the list goes on and on. Just the money my wife and I save not smoking cigarettes puts us way ahead.

  • johnwerneken March 16, 2012 on 8:21 am

    Baloney. The privileged have ALWAYS lived longer.

    Until recently it was entirely due to greater physical safety, food supply, and protection from environmental hazards. As public health came to exist, that became important, but relatively quickly applied to all. As later, medicine became important, it really was a branch of public health as the only useful part was vaccination against and later in a few cases treatments for endemic diseases.

    Later medicine (1960’s I think) became a bit more important: some things became treatable that had never been before. Some of these involved heart and kidney functions, for example. But most costs were covered by most insurance and most working or well off people were insured, excepting some non-unionized service trades, as far as major exceptions in the workforce.

    More lately (2000 forward) three more changes seem to be in progress: medicine is really becoming relevant all-around while the cost of it is going up at an outrageous unaffordable and unsustainable rate. So long as public policy unions and monopoly are so entrenched in medicine, this is only to be expected as a certainty, once medicine becomes of real value (which is an incredibly recent event, in our lifetimes!). The employer- or State – or Pension – paid insurance plan is DEAD – some still have one of course and will until the whole concept is replaced, but it just does not work with modern class demographics, medical and cost and monopoly trends, and it just can’t, short of armed force, and probably not even then. Watch China, they won’t be shy to try that. Perhaps most important of all, the stress levels and life-style support and life-style information levels have become class-segregated.

    This last change is globally, and the economic world has been globalized, so neither any Government alone nor all Governments together can do anything at all about any of this, except to abolish their role in the area of medical care and insurance provision within their jurisdictions (which would work: when people with money – most of the INCOME goes to the NOT Rich not to the Rich – want something bad enough, someone will provide it); or they can work for ‘one world’.

    A One World Government is certainly possible and it could certainly find a way to make medical care and longevity more equal (although I cannot see why equality is of any benefit to most people or to any society, I can see that many people see it as a benefit, or at least as a means towards an end).

    The odds of a One World Government even tolerating let alone fostering improvements in longevity whether of broad application or of any other application but to those in charge and those relied upon them to keep them in charge, are zero, so I hope that that is not tried.

  • khorporative March 16, 2012 on 9:28 am

    Well, perhaps that tells us that we are running a very outdated social system which in many respects does more harm than good.

    We can see that the asymmetry between technological capacities and human needs grows larger every day. And the more tragic the fact of human suffering, the easier it would be to avoid it (by application of modern scientific method). Yet capitalism provides societies (mankind indeed) with entirely distorted set of incentives.

  • arpad March 17, 2012 on 12:25 pm

    Oh come on David, do we really need a cheerleader for class warfare? Especially in where the irony of predicting class-based divisions is especially sharp?

    The rapidly increasing cost of medical care is a function of a couple of factors.

    Not necessarily the most important is the fact that we can simply do more then we could previously.

    If you needed a heart transplant in 1955 you were going to die so no one incurred the cost of a heart transplant. Every advance in medicine means there are new treatments, drugs, surgerys and gadgets upon which money can be spent.

    The other factor is government interference in the market.

    By artificially lowering the cost of medical care for the favored – union members, government employees and the like – demand is artificially inflated driving up prices. By piling on a regulatory environment, costs are also increased and treatments/drugs/gadgets delayed. Those supportive of government interference will argue the delay\’s worth the cost in lives and dollars but they\’re also arguing that such decisions ought to be left up to uninvolved, and not necessarily evenhanded, experts. I disagree but that\’s the environment we have.

    The history of free enterprise is a history of continually dropping prices and continuously improving the human condition. That\’s not the intent of free enterprise overall but since, on an individual basis, every free enterprise exchange benefits both parties, the improvement of the human condition overall, results.

    What that has to do with this article is that positing a continuing increase in the cost of medicine, including life-extending technologies, flies in the face of that history of ever-increasing abundance and ever-decreasing cost. It is possible to stem that tide of wealth-formation, locally and, on a historical basis, briefly but we may have already passed the point where the self-appointed and unrequested guardians of fairness and morality can stop the process.

    The question that ought to be asked at a site like this is \”what the hell do we do when the expectation is that *everyone* will live to a hundred or a hundred and fifty?\”

    We can look around and see what unprecedented wealth can do, giving rise to a society of emotional infants who can\’t imagine a world with real consequences and are upset to discover the world won\’t conform to their fervently held beliefs. What happens when those infants don\’t even have to worry about growing old and dying?

    You guys want a singularity? There\’s a singularity for you.

    • PRiME arpad March 31, 2012 on 3:20 am

      There is a boom and bust age to this cycle. The issue really is that we have the capacity to deliver to every person on Earth the access to knowledge and technology at no real cost, but we choose to deprive many instead.

      If I had the money I could destroy your entire family, because people would serve money as a form of power. What right do I have to do such a thing? NONE.

      Accepting each other as 100% equals is the first step in moving forward. I wish to live for 20,000 years and beyond. I don’t wish to dictate that on others. Choice is ultimate in design, as long as we don’t infringe of each others rights to existence as we are now doing today in society!

  • Jay27 March 18, 2012 on 8:36 am


    Technology is bringing us closer together, not driving us farther apart. Technology makes the handicapped un-handicapped (for lack of a better term). Technology makes the blind see and the deaf hear.

    How does it benefit governments to not dispense longevity cures to its people? Governments are pretty desperate for a good way to keep people healthier longer. That way they can work more and earn more tax money.

    There will be initiatives to bring health to the people at reasonable prices. This ain’t your grand daddy’s world no more, you hear me?

  • crispy March 18, 2012 on 10:53 pm

    DUEA IS MOT produced by the brain! Cortex of adrenals is where it’s made