Background: In developed countries with old age structures most deaths occur at older ages and older people account for the majority of those in poor health, which suggests a particular need to investigate health inequalities in the older population.
Methods: We empirically compared the materialist, psychosocial and lifestyle/behavioural theoretical mechanisms of explanation for socio-economic variation in health using data from two waves of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a nationally representative multi-purpose sample of the population aged 50 and over living in England. Three dimensions of health were examined: somatic health, depression and well-being.
Results: The materialist and lifestyle/behavioural paths had the most prominent mediating role in the association between socio-economic position and health in the older population, whereas the psychosocial pathway was less influential and exerted most of its influence on depression and well-being, with part of its effect being due to the availability of material resources.
Conclusions: From a policy perspective there is therefore an indication that population interventions to reduce health differentials and thus improve the overall health of the older population should focus on material circumstances and population based interventions to promote healthy lifestyles.