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There is a growing gap between the life expectancies of richer and poorer Americans, recent government data shows.

Although Americans as a whole are living longer lives, the life expectancy gap is growing between the rich and the poor, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Despite the government's 2000 goal to "eliminate health disparities among different segments of the population," socioeconomic life-expectancy gaps have widened at all ages over the last three decades.

The study found that people in the richest group of Americans can expect to live four-and-a-half years longer than those in the poorest. That gap has almost doubled from 2.8 years in the early 1980s.

Today, most affluent Americans can expect to live until age 79.2, while those in the poorest group have a life expectancy of 74.7 years.

Various explanations have been given for this trend. The causes relate to both the health care system and the social and cultural implications of having a low income, according to Judith Long, Penn professor of Medicine and core member of the Philadelphia VA Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion.

A key issue in health care is the growing number of people lacking health insurance, Long wrote in an e-mail.

"Routine preventative care, vaccinations, timely diagnostics and even mortality" are linked to having health insurance, she added.

Others said that looking at the data from solely an economic standpoint leaves out important details.

Penn Demography professor Samuel Preston pointed out that the shrinking racial disparity in life expectancy has been a positive change in recent years.

The economic life-expectancy gap "says less about the health system than about health behaviors," Preston said. "I don't think the health system has become less equitable."

Both Long and Preston cited effects of social contexts on health as a factor behind the gap in life expectancy.

Unhealthy diet choices, poor health education and increased stress all play a significant role in a person's life span.

However, it is clear that lower incomes can lead to unequal health care, something that Long said must be fixed.

"Income inequality has been associated with greater disparities in health in a variety of countries for a variety of different health outcomes," she wrote. "It reminds us the economic policy has many far reaching social impacts."

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