Growth in Mortality Differences Among Finns Begins

Growth in Mortality Differences Among Finns Begins

A recent study from the University of Helsinki has revealed a stagnation in the life expectancy of low-income Finns. This study has shown that while the life expectancy of other income groups continues to rise, those in the least affluent financial positions are seeing no such increase, thus widening the gap between the life expectancies of the rich and the poor. The study considered five different income categories.

The findings of this study were published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

According to the data from 2020, 30-year-old men from the highest income bracket could expect to live to 84, whereas those from the lowest income bracket would only expect to reach 73 – a stark difference of 11 years. Over the course of five years, this gap has increased by approximately one year.

When it comes to women, those in the highest financial fifth could expect to live to 87 if they were 30 years old. Women in the lowest income bracket, on the other hand, had a life expectancy of around 82 – a difference of five years. This discrepancy has grown by about half a year over the course of five years.

It is important to note that the study does not identify a single cause, such as cancers, accidents, or suicides, as the explanation for this situation.

The life expectancy stagnation of the socio-economically weakest fifth of the population is a significant turning point, asserts university researcher and demographics docent Lasse Tarkiainen, who was the first author of the study.

In the period between 2010 and 2014, the life expectancy of those in the weakest financial positions was growing at a similar rate to other groups and was even starting to approach the life expectancy of those in higher income brackets.

However, this stagnation in life expectancy is not a new phenomenon. A similar trend was observed in men between 1997 and 2007 and in women during the first decade of the 21st century.

Tarkiainen explains that at that time, there was a clear reason for this stagnation – alcohol-related mortality was rising in the lowest socio-economic group. This increase was greatly accelerated by the reduction in alcohol tax made in 2004.

“The reduction in alcohol tax led to so many deaths from alcohol in the lowest income bracket that other positive developments were overshadowed,” says Tarkiainen.

However, the most recent data does not show a similar increase in deaths from alcohol, despite the fact that the availability of alcohol was broadened in 2017, when 5.5 percent alcoholic drinks and mixed beverages were allowed to be sold in grocery stores.

While the increased accessibility did lead to a slight rise in alcohol-related deaths, it did not have the same impact as the 2004 reform.

Despite this, deaths from alcohol and tobacco-related causes are still more common among the lowest income quintile than among other groups. However, the difference is not significant enough to account for the decline in life expectancy in the lowest income quintile.

The mortality rates of all socio-economic groups have been greatly reduced by the reduction in deaths from coronary artery disease and other cardiovascular diseases. These diseases have also been occurring later in life across all socio-economic groups.

The death rate from vascular occlusions and coronary artery disease has also decreased among the least skilled, although this decrease has been slower than in other groups.

Interestingly, the group with the lowest incomes has seen a slight increase in deaths from dementia, other circulatory diseases, and other causes.

Among women, mortality from lung cancer and other cancers has also increased in the lowest income quintile. However, there is no clear reason for this trend in the data.

“One possible explanation could be that people in the lowest income quintile seek or receive treatment less frequently than people in higher income groups,” suggests Tarkiainen.

“Drug-related deaths are not a significant phenomenon at the population level in Finland.”

Tarkiainen also theorises that those in the lowest income bracket may have a greater number of people on disability pensions due to illness, which could decrease their life expectancy.

It is also worth noting that a person’s income often decreases before death, which could partly explain this trend.

What about the impact of immigration? Many immigrants have low incomes and may have had poorer nutrition and healthcare in childhood than those born in Finland.

“I don’t believe that immigration is a significant factor in these statistics, at least not yet. Our immigrant population is still quite young, and not yet at an age where mortality rates significantly increase,” says Tarkiainen.

Drug-related deaths are also not a key factor, according to Tarkiainen. Unlike in the United States, where the opioid crisis has had a marked impact on life expectancy, drug-related deaths are not a significant phenomenon at the population level in Finland.

“We should provide more support to the socio-economically disadvantaged.”

While the data in the study extends up to the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of deaths caused by the pandemic are not included in the data.

This would likely be reflected in a potential future study. Tarkiainen suspects that mortality rates from COVID-19 have been higher in lower income categories.

“Given the current trends, I strongly doubt whether the situation will have improved in five years,” says Tarkiainen.

The increasing disparity in mortality rates is not a desirable trend in a welfare state. So what can be done about it?

“This is the big question. Certainly, we should provide more support to the socio-economically disadvantaged, but how we should provide this support is a more difficult question,” says Tarkiainen.

“It’s often suggested that more research is required. This is rarely the case, but in this instance, it may be true,” Tarkiainen concludes.

Correction February 1 at 4:10 p.m.: The word ‘men’ was added to the sentence “In 2020, 30-year-old men belonging to the highest income quintile could expect to live to be 84.”

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