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Another Way the Rich Are Different: They Live Longer

Even a twin with a higher net worth is likely to outlive a poorer sibling, study reveals

Senior man holding glass of wine sitting at head of banquet table outside in field friends and family seated behind

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En español | The rich are different. They not only have more money but also may live longer, new research suggests.

A recent study, published in the JAMA Health Forum, assessed a group of 5,414 participants and found that those who had accumulated a higher net worth at midlife had a significantly lower risk of dying in the following 24 years.

The study was particularly significant in that it included twins and siblings and found the same results — meaning that the lower mortality rate for wealthier people was unlikely to be caused by early-childhood influences or heredity alone.

The study

The research was part of an ongoing study, “Midlife in the United States (MIDUS),” which dates back to 1994, at the University of Wisconsin. The original national MIDUS sample group consisted of 7,000 people ages 25 to 74. They were asked detailed information about their work and family lives as well as their worries and concerns. The sample included siblings of many respondents, including twins.

One of the questions in the original study was a springboard for the new study published in JAMA this month, and it dealt with net worth — the value of all your assets minus your debts. The question: “Suppose you (and your spouse or partner) cashed in all your checking and savings accounts, stocks and bonds, real estate, sold your home, your vehicles and all your valuable possessions. Then suppose you put that money toward paying off your mortgage and all your other loans, debts and credit cards. Would you have any money leftover after paying your debts, or would you still owe money?"

The authors of the study — there are nine, led by Eric D. Finegood — concluded that wealth did play a part in longevity, albeit a modest one. “We observed a 1 percent absolute difference in the probability of survival after nearly 24 years between family members who differed by approximately $139,000 in net worth at midlife,” the paper states. (The median net worth in the sample is $122,000.) The findings were similar among siblings and twins.

The difference could widen if the gap between high-income and low-income people grows, the study's authors say. According to the Urban Institute, in 1992, those in the lowest 10 percent of net worth in the U.S. had a zero net worth, compared with $600,000 for those in the top 90 percent. As of 2016, those in the bottom 10 percent owed $950 and those in the top 90 percent had $1.2 million.

"Over the past 30 years, the wealth gap between the high-income and low-income people in the U.S. has widened through policies and practices that have diverted a substantial and increasing share of wealth from the lower- and middle-income groups to the affluent group. Such redistribution may have implications for longevity patterns in the coming decades."

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It's not surprising that those with more wealth tend to live longer than those with less. If you have more money, you probably have access to better health care as well as more nutritious foods. You also have less stress from worrying about money, and stress is a factor in mortality, as well. What's more, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected the health and financial security of low-income and older workers.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of other reasons, aside from wealth, why one person may live longer than another. Cigarette smoking, alcohol, exercise (or lack of it) and overall level of self-care play a large part in longevity. The study considered those factors, along with medical history and education level.

Gal Wettstein, senior research economist at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, noted that the sample size of twins, for instance, was relatively small and that siblings who aren't twins could have significantly different childhood experiences. And while the study does control for family factors and genetics, it doesn't answer why very similar people can have such a difference in wealth at middle age. “There must be something that has such different [financial] outcomes in midlife,” Wettstein says.

John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.