The poorest third of the UK’s older working-age adults have worse health than people born a century ago had at the same age, research shows.
The study from University College London (UCL) found that the poorest people are experiencing ill-health earlier in life, which means that public health services will face rising demands.
Dr Stephen Jivraj, the author of the new study, said the pressure on the NHS is going to be even greater than expected given the ageing population.
The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, involved an analysis of data collected from the annual British General Household Survey between 1979 and 2011, and focused on adults aged between 30 and 59.
Among men and women in the lowest third for household income, those born in the late 1960s reported higher levels of limiting long-term illness than those born in the early 1920s.
No such trend was seen for women among the middle or richest third of the population.
Among men in the wealthier two-thirds of the population there was a drop in limiting long-term illness among later cohorts.
Overall, 32% of the poorest third of women born in 1968-1970 reported a limiting long-term illness when aged between 30 and 59, compared with 12% of the richest third.
In those born in 1920-22, the health gap was smaller – prevalence of ill-health was 23% among the poorest and 13% among the richest.
In men, the gap was 24 percentage points in the later generation and nine percentage points in the earlier one.
A widening gap across generations was also seen when it came to reports of general health, although the overall trend was less stark.
Jivraj said the trends were similar to those seen in household income where the gap has widened over the years. He said it may also be linked to factors such as smoking or lack of secure housing.
Ben Franklin, the head of research at the Centre for Progressive Policy, told the Guardian the study added to a growing body of literature showing a widening gap in the health of people with higher and lower socioeconomic status.
“We have got the NHS, which is a great thing for the UK, and it helps to level up the UK in terms of ensuring equality of access to world-class healthcare, but that alone is not going to solve persistent and growing health inequalities,” he said.