There is an old proverb – incorrectly attributed for many years to Benjamin Franklin – suggesting: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Interestingly, it turns out that two of those three attributes – being healthy and being wealthy – are much more closely related than the proverb might suggest.

For example, researchers recently examined what role socioeconomic factors – particularly education level, occupational social class, and economic wealth – play in how long people live healthy lives. For purposes of the study, researchers defined being healthy in rather broad terms – being able to engage in activities such as getting out of bed by themselves and cooking their own meals. In addressing the relationship between health and socioeconomic factors, the researchers (from Harvard, the University College London and institutions in three other countries) examined existing data sets involving more than 25,000 people over the age of 50 from the United States and England.

Specifically, the researchers analyzed how well these socioeconomic factors would predict how long someone over the age of 50 would remain healthy. Educational attainment was classified into three groups: low (less than high school); moderate (high school graduate and some college); and high (college graduate or more). Similarly, social occupational status was divided into three categories: low (routine, manual, elementary occupations); intermediate (administrative, secretarial, sales, services); and high (managers, professionals, associate professionals, technical occupations). Finally, wealth – not to be confused with income – was calculated as the sum of the person’s financial wealth plus their housing wealth, less all of their debt. Once calculated, the 25,000+ participants were divided into equal thirds: the poorest third had an average wealth of $29,000; the middle third had an average wealth of $180,000, and the wealthiest third had an average wealth of $980,000.

When their analysis was complete, the researchers determined that two of the socioeconomic factors paled in comparison to wealth in terms of predicting long-term good health. In particular, the researchers concluded that on average, wealthy women in both the United States and England live 33 healthy years after the age of 50, which is eight to nine years longer than poor women. Similarly, wealthy men live 31 healthy years after the age of 50, which is also eight to nine years longer than poor men.

The researchers concluded that additional study is necessary to determine why wealth plays such a particularly strong indicator of how long someone lives a healthy life. However, they noted that it was likely because wealthy people had access to additional financial resources that could be applied to maintaining their health.

If You Can’t Be Wealthy, at Least Be Wise

There is relatively little that someone over the age of 50 can do to improve his or her economic position significantly. However, given the eight to nine years difference in healthy life that the wealthy enjoy over the poor, one may wonder if there is anything else that those with more limited financial resources can do to maximize their number of healthy years. Utah attorney Greg Bishop suggests that if you can’t be wealthy, at least be wise in preserving your health. Bishop recommends adopting the following approach (it is never too late to start reaping the benefits of any one of these suggestions):

  1. Engage in a strength-building program for at least 2.5 hours per week, spread out over several days. Researchers have determined that maintaining (and hopefully building) lean muscle mass will make a meaningful contribution to your overall health
  2. In addition, adopt a cardiovascular training program as well, again for a minimum of 2.5 hours per week at moderate intensity, also spread out over several days. Apart from a strength-training program, researchers have concluded that increasing cardiovascular fitness contributes additional health benefits
  3. Improve your overall nutrition by eating less processed foods, avoiding sugars and fats, and increasing your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables. One important benefit of having a more nutritionally balanced diet is that – along with exercising for strength and cardiovascular endurance – it can help you get to a healthy weight
  4. Develop and maintain strong social connections. Researchers have found that those who are socially isolated are at risk of developing several serious health problems. Indeed, some researchers have concluded that the health risks of social isolation are equivalent to smoking 12 cigarettes per day
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