New study calculates number of deaths caused by poverty

Poverty is often cited as contributing to poor health. Now, in an unusual approach, researchers have calculated how many people poverty kills and presented their findings, along with an argument that social factors can cause death the same way that behaviour like smoking cigarettes does.

In an article published online for the June 16 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, scientists calculated the number of deaths attributable to each of six social factors, including low income.

To estimate the number of deaths caused by each factor, the scientists reviewed 47 earlier studies on the subject, combining the data in a meta-analysis. The studies were generally based on large national surveys like the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a continuing study by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Then, using the pooled data, the researchers calculated the “population-attributable fraction” of deaths -- that is, the number of deaths caused by living with a given social disadvantage.

Finally, they multiplied that fraction by the total number of deaths in the year 2000 to come up with a number of deaths caused by each of the six social conditions. The researchers then separated the contribution of each social factor.

“The methods we’re using are limited,” Dr. Sandro Galea, the lead author, acknowledged. “Any time you try to say that death is attributable to a single cause, there’s a problem -- all deaths are attributable to many causes. But what we did is just as valid as what was done to establish smoking as a cause of death.”

Access the full study: Estimated Deaths Attributable to Social Factors in the United States

Publication Date: 
United States