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Study suggests poor, uneducated age faster and could be more vulnerable to disease.

Poor and uneducated people could be ageing faster and could be more vulnerable to disease because their hormones are out of balance, a study has suggested.

Scientists have known for some time that the most underprivileged members of society die earlier and are “biologically older” than rich people. Those living in the most affluent areas are expected to live around eight years longer than those in the poorest regions.

Now, researchers at University College London (UCL) believe they have found a possible reason for the disparity.

A study which has monitored 1,880 British men and women since 1946 has discovered that hormones critical to healthy ageing are significantly out of balance by the time the most disadvantaged reach 60-64.

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Men with the lowest household income – less than £6,000 ($NZ 13,000) a year – had 10 per cent lower testosterone levels than men earning £30,000 a year or more. Low testosterone has been linked to weight gain, loss of muscle, osteoporosis and depression.

In contrast, women whose parents were unskilled workers had testosterone levels 15 per cent higher than the daughters of professionals. In women, too much testosterone is linked to early puberty, infertility and polycystic ovaries.

Those with the lowest education in both sexes also had depleted levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF) which has been linked to poor cognitive function and an increased risk of cancer and of cardiovascular mortality.

Levels of IGF in women with no qualifications were 16 per lower than in those who had degrees. For men, the difference was 8 per cent.

Low levels of cortisol, which can lead to heart palpitations, depression, pain and insomnia, were also seen in both men and women with the lowest education. Professor Diana Kuh, of the Medical Research Council’s Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL, said the hormonal differences showed how societal factors literally “get under the skin” and affect health.

“We found that socioeconomic disadvantage across life, based on father’s social class and on the study member’s education, social class and income, was associated with an adverse hormone profile,” Prof Kuh said.

“These hormones are thought to work together to ensure healthy development and also have many different roles in regulating health in older age.

“So our findings suggest that these socioeconomic differences in hormone systems may play a role in explaining social inequalities in health as we age.”

Hormones may be affected by exposure to stress and adverse events, health problems and obesity, and unhealthy lifestyles such as physical inactivity, poor diet, and smoking, she said.

It is already known that socio-economic status has a major impact on health, with studies showing that being poor is associated with increased risks of cardiovascular, respiratory, rheumatic and psychiatric diseases, low birth weight and infant mortality.

Scientists believe psychological stresses of having a less secure future, being bossed around and having lower self-esteem and less access to social support networks cause an increased rate of molecular damage. Living in an area of high crime is also thought to accelerate ageing.

Dr David Bann, of the Institute of Education at UCL, said: “Our study shows that people from a disadvantaged background are biologically different which could explain health inequalities.”

The research, which was based on data from the MRC National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD) was published in the journal Social Science and Medicine.

 – The Telegraph, London

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