​Another perk of being rich: A longer life

A high income delivers plenty of advantages, including the ultimate one: More years of life.

Americans with the highest incomes are living longer than the poorest citizens, according to a new report from the Urban Institute and the Center of Society and Health, a research center at Virginia Commonwealth University. But the benefits aren't only seen between the very top and bottom of the income distribution. Instead, the connection between income and health is seen at every step of the economic ladder, the report notes.

While the rich have always been able to afford better health care and more leisure time for exercise, the trend of widening income inequality is exacerbating the stark differences between the economic classes, potentially posing long-term health and spending issues for the country. The median household income stands below its peak in 1999, while the poverty rate reached 15.1 percent in 2010, the highest percentage since 1993, the report notes. As America's ranks of low-paid workers continues to grow, that could lead to high burdens on the health care system and tax payers in years to come.

"Disadvantaged workers are more likely to generate higher health care costs from their increased risk of illnesses. Thus, employers of low-income workers pay a double price: In health care expenses and diminished productivity," the report noted.

About 23 percent of Americans earning less than $35,000 annually say they have fair or poor health, compared with 5.6 percent of people earning more than $100,000.

Differences in life expectancy by income is also stark. At age 25, those earning more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $95,400 for a family of four, could expect to live another 55.7 years, or 80.7 years total. For those earning less than the federal poverty level, their additional lifespan will only be 49.2 years (74.2 years total), or six and a half years less than the highest-earning group.

The disparity in life expectancies for the rich and poor is visible in many communities, the report noted.

"Virginia's Fairfax County, one of the richest counties in the country, and West Virginia's McDowell County, one of the poorest, are separated by just 350 miles; however, the difference in life expectancy between the two counties is vast," the study said.

Men and women in Fairfax County have a life expectancy of 82 years and 85 years, respectively, or about the same as in Sweden. For their counterparts in McDowell County, the average lifespan is only 64 and 73 years, respectively, or about the same as people living in Iraq.

So what's behind the divergence? Wealthy Americans are more likely to have health insurance, and are also able to pay for medicine, co-pays, and other medical expenses. They're also able to eat better, live in neighborhoods with less pollution, and find time to exercise.

"Low-income neighborhoods and areas of concentrated poverty tend to expose their residents to higher rates of unemployment, crime, adolescent delinquency, social and physical disorder, and residential mobility," the study noted.

Poverty has long been linked with poorer health, and that's an issue that many low-income Americans report feeling on a daily basis. The poor are more likely to say that a lack of money has a harmful effect on a person's health than higher-income Americans, a study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and NPR found last month. Well-off Americans, by contrast, are more likely to blame a lack of top medical care, personal behavior and viruses for their sicknesses.

Poor and middle-income earners are more likely to say they don't have much control over their health, with some citing environmental issues beyond their control.

Government programs and policy solutions could help alleviate some of the problems, such as neighborhood strengthening programs that help engage residents in neighborhood affairs and development programs to help low-income Americans develop marketable skills, the Urban Institute study noted.

The report noted, "Improving the economic conditions of Americans at many income levels--from those who are poor to those in the middle class--could improve health and help control the rising costs of health care. Jobs, education, and other drivers of economic prosperity matter to public health."