“Finland enjoys equality and a functioning welfare system, but the Nordic countries and Finland in particular have the greatest socioeconomic health discrepancies in Western Europe,” explains Karri Silventoinen, university lecturer in social research at the University of Helsinki. He is concerned.
The highly educated remain healthy on average 13 years longer than the least educated group.
One suggested explanation for this is the gap between high-quality, easily attainable occupational health care and the public health services which are struggling with limited funding. However, the researchers do not believe that the disparity in health is due to the health care system.
“Often, people only enter the health care system once they are already sick,” points out Professor Ossi Rahkonen, Director of the Hjelt Institute.
Open research questions related to these discrepancies and ways to mitigate them abound, but social scientists and medical researchers have arrived at a few likely explanations, the most central of which are food and other tightly held habits.
The diets of the economically disadvantaged in Finland and Sweden are characterised by butter and processed sausages, while those in Southern Europe feature olive oil and vegetable risotto.
A female cashier beats a male engineer
Alcohol increases the health disparity between men and women, which is even greater than the one related to socioeconomic status.
“Comparing a male CEO with a Master of Science degree in technology to a female cashier of the same age at his local supermarket, the socioeconomic differences between the two are significant. But the life expectancy of the female cashier is still higher than that of the male CEO,” Silventoinen describes.
Health problems related to nutrition, stress and alcohol use accumulate, and often manifest in men in their fifties and sixties.
A middle-aged man in the lowest 20% in terms of income can expect to live until 69, whereas the same man in the top 20% can expect to live beyond 80.
No sweets in schools
Researchers propose organised workplace lunches as one measure that could help to improve health equality.
“When lunch is offered at the workplace, the food is healthier than what workers would find at a local pub,” Rahkonen suggests.
Finland benefits from a well-functioning system of school lunches, but it also has room for improvement. Silventoinen would focus even more on food that is both healthier and more delicious.
“This could impact the whole lives of the children, particularly children from low-income families – how they eat and what they’re used to. I would ban sweets and sodas from school premises.”
A more reasonable work pace would also help. According to Rahkonen, at least some Finns would engage in more exercise if they had more free time. There is interest towards weight control.
“There’s also a new group of young people who are proud not to drink or smoke.”
People who do not smoke before the age of 25 are highly unlikely to become smokers later in life.
Text: Kyösti Niemelä
Photo: Eeva Anundi
Translation: University of Helsinki Language Services
University of Helsinki, digital communications