England’s over 50s spending more on ‘basics’

21 October 2010

The amount that people over 50 in England spend on life’s basics – food, fuel and clothing – has increased significantly in the last 4-5 years, with the poorest being the most affected, according to the latest results from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA).

A quarter of households experienced a 10 percentage point or more increase in the share of their income devoted to basics between 2004/5 and 2008/9, and spending on domestic fuel alone rose by over a third in real terms over this period.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot

The study also looked at the health and lifestyles of this age group, with the latest results showing a rise in sedentary behaviour and marked increases in waist size and weight since the last results were collected. Key health indicators such as obesity, fruit and vegetable intake and low physical exercise were closely linked to social status. For the first time, the researchers examined certain biological measures that appear to be health protective and found evidence to support the theory that biological ageing is slower in people in better socioeconomic circumstances.

ELSA is the most comprehensive study into the economic, social, psychological and health elements of the ageing process in Europe, painting a detailed picture of the lives of people in England aged 50 and over. Participants are interviewed every two years by the National Centre for Social Research, with 10,860 people being interviewed for the fourth wave of the study in 2008/9. A report based on the latest data, ‘Financial Circumstances, Health and Well-Being of the Older Population in England’, is published today.

ELSA’s Principal Investigator, Professor Sir Michael Marmot, UCL Epidemiology & Public Health, commented: “Food and fuel make up a considerable proportion of elderly peoples’ budgets so any price increases tend to have a significant effect on those households. Spending on basics as a percentage of income can be used as a yardstick for welfare and the report shows that the poorest fifth of the population were 17 percentage points more likely to experience a substantial increase in the share of their income devoted to basics over this period than the richest fifth of the population.

“We also found a clear social gradient in several health indicators with less wealthy people having higher levels of obesity, lower levels of physical exercise, higher levels of smoking, lower fruit and vegetable intake and being more likely to suffer from hypertension and diabetes. A striking new finding is that the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) that predicts life expectancy also follows a social gradient: less wealth, lower levels of DHEAS.”

The latest findings starkly outline the link between social status and health. For example, the proportion of obese women from the poorest fifth of the population was 43 per cent, compared with only 28 per cent in the wealthiest fifth – the corresponding figures for men are 34 per cent and 23 per cent. Only 39 per cent of men and 42 per cent of women in the poorest fifth of the population reach the daily recommended intake of fruit and vegetables (five portions a day), compared with 61 per cent of men and 66 per cent of women in the wealthiest fifth.

ELSA is jointly run by UCL, The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and NatCen.

Image: Professor Sir Michael Marmot

Media contact: Ruth Howells


UCL context

UCL Epidemiology & Public Health is a multi-disciplinary department that aims to develop a better understanding of health and prevention of ill health through vigorous research and the development of research methodology. This knowledge is applied via undergraduate and graduate teaching, contributions to national and international health policy and contributions to the wider public understanding on health.

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