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Story: Health and society

Socio-economic factors and ethnicity contribute to people’s health – or lack thereof. Since European colonisation Māori have consistently had lower life expectancy and poorer health than Pākehā, and people living in deprived areas have worse health than those in wealthier neighbourhoods.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: Healthy school lunches, Glen Innes Primary School, Auckland

Story Summary

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People’s health is influenced by social factors, including income, housing, education, diet and lifestyle – as well as age, gender and heredity.

From the late 19th century Pākehā became less likely to die from infectious diseases. They lived longer and died from illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. For Māori this change happened later, in the mid-20th century.

Socio-economic factors

Socio-economic status (based on things like income, occupation and education) has a strong impact on health. People living in poorer neighbourhoods have lower life expectancy than those in wealthier areas. In the 1980s and 1990s, the gap between the mortality rates of the rich and the poor increased.

Ethnicity

Māori and Pacific people have poorer health than other ethnic groups. Māori life expectancy increased dramatically after the Second World War – but in the 2000s it was still lower than that of Pākehā. In 2006 life expectancy at birth was 83 years for non-Māori women, 79 for non-Māori men, 75 for Māori women and 70 for Māori men.

Lifestyle factors

Cancer is a major cause of death in New Zealand. Lung cancer is mainly caused by tobacco smoking – and poorer people and Māori are more likely to smoke. Heavy drinking, sun exposure, poor nutrition and obesity can also contribute to cancer.

Risk factors for heart disease include smoking, poor nutrition and lack of exercise.

Cold, damp houses and polluting heating can lead to respiratory problems such as asthma.

Health services

From 1939 public hospitals were free. From 1941 prescription medicines were free and the government subsidised doctors’ fees. Charges were reintroduced for prescriptions in 1985, and in 2013 prescriptions cost $5 for most people. Cost still put some people – especially poorer people – off going to the doctor. Some ended up in hospital for problems that their doctor could have solved earlier.

The government ran programmes encouraging women to be screened for breast cancer and cervical cancer. They promoted healthy food, stopping smoking and exercising.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Health and society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/health-and-society (accessed 24 May 2017)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011