Socioeconomic disparities in health outcomes in the United States in the late 2010s: results from four national population-based studies

Arch Public Health. 2023 Feb 4;81(1):15. doi: 10.1186/s13690-023-01026-1.


Background: Despite the importance of monitoring health disparities by multiple socioeconomic categories, there have been no recent updates on the prevalence of general health indicators by socioeconomic categories. The present study aims to update the prevalence estimates of health indicators by education and income categories across three age groups (children, young and middle-aged adults, and older adults) in the late 2010s by using four nationally representative data sources. We also examine socioeconomic differences in health by race/ethnicity subgroups.

Methods: Data were obtained from four nationally representative data sources from the U.S.: The National Health Interview Survey (2015-2018); the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, NHANES (2017-2020); the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (2016-2020); and the Health & Retirement Study (2016). Respondent-rated health and obesity were selected as the health indicators of interest. Socioeconomic factors included percentages of the federal poverty level and years of educational attainment. We conducted logistic regression analyses to calculate adjusted prevalence rates of respondent-rated (or measured, in the case of obesity in NHANES) poor health and obesity by income and education categories after controlling for sociodemographic characteristics. The complex sampling designs were accounted for in all analyses.

Results: Prevalence rates across racial/ethnic groups and age groups demonstrated clear and consistent socioeconomic gradients in respondent-rated poor health, with the highest rates among those in the lowest income and education categories, and decreased rates as income and education levels increased. On the other hand, there were less evident socioeconomic differences in obesity rates across all data sources, racial/ethnic groups, and age groups.

Conclusions: Our results confirmed earlier, persistent evidence indicating socioeconomic disparities in respondent-rated poor health across all age and race/ethnicity groups by using four nationally representative datasets. In comparison to a decade earlier, socioeconomic disparities in poor health appeared to shrink while they emerged or increased for obesity. The results suggest an urgent need for action to alleviate pervasive health disparities by socioeconomic status. Further research is needed to investigate potentially modifiable factors underlying socioeconomic disparities in health, which may help design targeted health promotion programs.

Keywords: Health disparities; Respondent-rated health; Socioeconomic disparities.