Context: Previous studies may have underestimated the contribution of health behaviors to social inequalities in mortality because health behaviors were assessed only at the baseline of the study.
Objective: To examine the role of health behaviors in the association between socioeconomic position and mortality and compare whether their contribution differs when assessed at only 1 point in time with that assessed longitudinally through the follow-up period.
Design, setting, and participants: Established in 1985, the British Whitehall II longitudinal cohort study includes 10 308 civil servants, aged 35 to 55 years, living in London, England. Analyses are based on 9590 men and women followed up for mortality until April 30, 2009. Socioeconomic position was derived from civil service employment grade (high, intermediate, and low) at baseline. Smoking, alcohol consumption, diet, and physical activity were assessed 4 times during the follow-up period.
Main outcome measures: All-cause and cause-specific mortality.
Results: A total of 654 participants died during the follow-up period. In the analyses adjusted for sex and year of birth, those with the lowest socioeconomic position had 1.60 times higher risk of death from all causes than those with the highest socioeconomic position (a rate difference of 1.94/1000 person-years). This association was attenuated by 42% (95% confidence interval [CI], 21%-94%) when health behaviors assessed at baseline were entered into the model and by 72% (95% CI, 42%-154%) when they were entered as time-dependent covariates. The corresponding attenuations were 29% (95% CI, 11%-54%) and 45% (95% CI, 24%-79%) for cardiovascular mortality and 61% (95% CI, 16%-425%) and 94% (95% CI, 35%-595%) for noncancer and noncardiovascular mortality. The difference between the baseline only and repeated assessments of health behaviors was mostly due to an increased explanatory power of diet (from 7% to 17% for all-cause mortality, respectively), physical activity (from 5% to 21% for all-cause mortality), and alcohol consumption (from 3% to 12% for all-cause mortality). The role of smoking, the strongest mediator in these analyses, did not change when using baseline or repeat assessments (from 32% to 35% for all-cause mortality).
Conclusion: In a civil service population in London, England, there was an association between socioeconomic position and mortality that was substantially accounted for by adjustment for health behaviors, particularly when the behaviors were assessed repeatedly.