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Do wealth and inequality associate with health in a small-scale subsistence society?


In high-income countries, one's relative socio-economic position and economic inequality may affect health and well-being, arguably via psychosocial stress. We tested this in a small-scale subsistence society, the Tsimane, by associating relative household wealth (n = 871) and community-level wealth inequality (n = 40, Gini = 0.15-0.53) with a range of psychological variables, stressors, and health outcomes (depressive symptoms [n = 670], social conflicts [n = 401], non-social problems [n = 398], social support [n = 399], cortisol [n = 811], body mass index [n = 9,926], blood pressure [n = 3,195], self-rated health [n = 2523], morbidities [n = 1542]) controlling for community-average wealth, age, sex, household size, community size, and distance to markets. Wealthier people largely had better outcomes while inequality associated with more respiratory disease, a leading cause of mortality. Greater inequality and lower wealth were associated with higher blood pressure. Psychosocial factors did not mediate wealth-health associations. Thus, relative socio-economic position and inequality may affect health across diverse societies, though this is likely exacerbated in high-income countries.

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