Study objective: To examine social class gradients for seven self-reported diseases in western Germany.
Design: A pooled analysis of three cross-sectional representative health surveys in western Germany and three health surveys in the six intervention regions of the German Cardiovascular Prevention Study.
Participants: 44,363 study subjects, of both sexes, with German nationality, aged 25-69 years, were examined in the national and regional health surveys from 1984 to 1991.
Measurement and main results: Assessment of disease prevalence was carried out by a standardized self-administered questionnaire. Social class was assessed using a composite index combining educational achievement, occupational status and household income. Cigarette smoking and Pattern A behaviour were based on self-report. Height and weight were measured by physical examination and body mass index was calculated. Statistical analysis were performed using multiple logistical regression. Response rates ranged from 66.0 to 71.4% in the national surveys and from 65.9 to 83.8% in the regional surveys. For both sexes, the prevalence of previous myocardial infarction and the prevalence of stroke, diabetes mellitus and chronic bronchitis was significantly higher in the lower social classes. In males only, the prevalence of intervertebral disc damage and peptic ulcer was significantly higher in the lower social classes. In females only, there was a similar gradient for hyperuricaemia and gout. In both sexes, allergies and hay fever were the only diseases with higher prevalence in the higher social classes. Adjusting these trends for smoking, obesity and Pattern A behaviour resulted in only minor changes in the slopes of the disease-specific social class gradients.
Conclusion: In western Germany, despite a health system with almost free access for the general population, strong social class inequalities exist for many diseases. These inequalities cannot be explained by social class differences in smoking, obesity or Pattern A behaviour. More research is needed to identify underlying causes for these persistent social inequalities in health status.