The New York Times reports that while average life expectancies are increasing, they are rising at different rates for Americans of different incomes. The gap in life expectancies between rich and poor is growing. The Times story highlights a number of potential causes, ranging from different risk factors, different levels of medical treatment, and differences in long-range planning for individual health. All likely play a role.
A factor the Times article does not mention is that causation between income and health runs both ways. While those with lower incomes can’t afford as good health care, it’s also the case that those with poorer health tend to earn less, simply because they cannot work as much. If poor health has a stronger negative effect on income today than in the past, this could help explain the trend.
Differential mortality by income has been an issue for Social Security policy for many years. Milton Friedman argued decades ago that Social Security’s formal progressivity was reduced due to the different life spans of the rich and poor. (This is true, though the program remains progressive overall.)