Status Syndrome

Is the name of a new book by Professor Michael Marmot. There’s been a bit of coverage in the media generally (online sources include New Scientist News, the BBC, and the Guardian). I haven’t actually read the book yet, but I’m interested as I worked in Professor Marmot’s department at UCL on the Whitehall II Study and am familiar with many of his ideas and the research that lies behind them.

Professor Marmot’s core idea is that a person’s social standing has a significant impact upon their life expectancy. This is a more complex formulation than a simple “The rich live longer than the poor”, which is demonstrated by differences between societies – life expectancy is comparatively lower in some places that might surprise.

Income does have a use as an indicator of status, but more important are factors such as control over ones life or a sense of belonging. He suggests that health can be improved by giving people more power over their lives and building more cohesive communities to live in. I can’t believe that it’s a surprise that alienated and powerless people die earlier.

There’s politics here, of course. The New Scientist report mentions the increased divergence in life expectancy between high and low social groups during the Thatcher years and the subsequent (slight) decrease since New Labour came to power. The Guardian mentions drops in life expectancy following the advent of free-market capitalism in the former USSR. But politics isn’t the driving force behind this research, and shouldn’t get in the way of work that provides insight into the consequences of the ways we organise ourselves.