Poverty, health, and nutrition in Germany

U Helmert, A Mielck, S Shea
Reviews on Environmental Health 1997, 12 (3): 159-70

OBJECTIVE: To investigate the relation between poverty and several variables describing health and nutrition behavior in East Germany and West Germany.

METHODS: Data are from the third National Health Survey in West Germany and the first Health Survey for the new federal states of Germany (1991/92). Both health surveys included a self-administered questionnaire ascertaining sociodemographic variables, smoking history, nutritional behavior (using a food-frequency list), physical activity, and a medical examination comprising measurements of height, weight, blood pressure, and blood sampling for serum cholesterol determination. Participants included 4958 subjects in the West Survey and 2186 subjects in the East Survey aged 25-69 years, with a respective net response rate of 69.0% and 70.2%. Poverty was defined as a household equivalence income of 62.5% or less of the median income of the general population.

RESULTS: The lowest income group (poverty or near poverty) comprised 11.6% of East German versus 15.9% of West German males and 14.8% of East German versus 19.3% of West German females. For most but not all health and nutrition parameters, less favorable results were obtained for subjects with an equivalence income below or near poverty. The most striking poverty-related differences regarding cardiovascular disease risk factors were found for lack of regular exercise for both genders and obesity in females. No poverty-related differences were found for the prevalence of hypercholesterolemia, despite a much higher prevalence of obesity in persons with an income below the poverty line. Current nutritional behavior and changes in nutritional behavior during the last three years was strongly related to income status, with a more unhealthy status for low-income population groups in both East and West Germany.

CONCLUSIONS: In Germany, poverty has strong effects on individual health status and nutritional behavior. Because of rising unemployment rates and reductions in social security payments for low-income groups, it is likely that the negative consequences of poverty on health are increasing.

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