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How might the cost of living crisis affect people’s health?

Difficult decisions about what to eat and how to stay warm will have knock-on effects on people’s physical and mental health. The outcomes will increase demand on an already strained NHS.

People’s health and income are deeply intertwined. How much money you make influences how healthy you are – and vice versa. 

Children born in economic depressions have shorter life expectancies and worse health during their lives. Adults in poor health are less able to work and less likely to be offered employment, leading to falls in household income.

The current cost of living crisis is likely to affect people’s health in a number of ways. First, and maybe most obviously, food and energy costs have gone up – both of which have direct effects on health.

The huge rise in the number of individuals using food banks – an 81% increase in five years, according to the Trussell Trust – is testament to the fact that food has become unaffordable for some (see Figure 1). Higher food prices mean that people are less able to afford more nutritious food, including fresh fruit and vegetables.

Figure 1: Food parcels per thousand people, 2021-2022

Source: The Trussell Trust

Many will replace these healthier options with cheaper, more processed food, or even go without. Eating less health foods, which are higher in calories, results in rising obesity and increasing risk of long-term chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cardio-vascular disease. Children exposed to poor diets early in life have worse health and weaker performance at school.

Similarly, higher electricity prices mean that individuals are less able to keep warm in cold spells or cool down in severe hot weather. Both extreme cold and heat raise mortality rates, particularly among those with pre-existing health conditions.

Second, sharp increases in the cost of living – along with the further uncertainty that comes with inflation – hurt people’s mental health. This can be a vicious circle as financial vulnerability and worries are strongly associated with poorer mental health, which in turn makes difficult financial decision-making even harder.

These effects on people’s physical and mental health are likely to increase demand for healthcare. But the current cost of living crisis, accompanied by low GDP growth, sets the scene for a simultaneous rise in the demand for public services and a decrease in the ability of the state to raise taxes to pay for those services.

The government will be faced with difficult decisions about where to focus scarce public funds. This squeeze will be even more pronounced if the chancellor institutes tax cuts to try to stimulate future growth.

Although the NHS has been protected against cuts in funding during the pandemic, we entered the cost of living crisis with a health service already stretched from Covid-19. Waiting lists are the longest they’ve been in two decades and there are long-term shortages of front-line staff in both health and social care. The current shortfall in delivery by ambulance services is not just a failure to meet current demand but is also a reflection of shortages in capacity in both hospital and social care services.

While healthcare is not the only thing that affects health, cuts to NHS services will have an impact. In sum, the outlook for health is worrying and could be set to worsen if the cost of living crisis drags on.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Elaine Kelly
  • Carol Propper
  • Max Warner
  • Ben Zaranko
  • Elaine Drayton
Author: Carol Propper
Picture by Alla Bogdanovic on iStock
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