Background: Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are the largest cause of premature death worldwide. Socioeconomic inequalities contribute to a disparity in the burden of NCDs among disadvantaged and advantaged populations in low (LIC), middle (MIC), and high income countries (HIC). We conducted an overview of systematic reviews to systematically and objectively assess the available evidence on socioeconomic inequalities in relation to morbidity and mortality of NCDs and their risk factors.
Methods: We searched PubMed, The Cochrane Library, EMBASE, SCOPUS, Global Health, and Business Source Complete for relevant systematic reviews published between 2003 and December 2013. Two authors independently screened abstracts and full-text publications and determined the risk of bias of the included systematic reviews.
Results: We screened 3302 abstracts, 173 full-text publications and ultimately included 22 systematic reviews. Most reviews had major methodological shortcomings; however, our synthesis showed that having low socioeconomic status (SES) and/or living in low and middle income countries (LMIC) increased the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases (CVD), lung and gastric cancer, type 2 diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Furthermore, low SES increased the risk of mortality from lung cancer, COPD, and reduced breast cancer survival in HIC. Reviews included here indicated that lower SES is a risk factor for obesity in HIC, but this association varied by SES measure. Early case fatalities of stroke were lower and survival of retinoblastoma was higher in MIC compared to LIC.
Conclusions: The current evidence supports an association between socioeconomic inequalities and NCDs and risk factors for NCDs. However, this evidence is incomplete and limited by the fairly low methodological quality of the systematic reviews, including shortcomings in the study selection and quality assessment process.