According to official statistics, money really does buy health but is this really the key factor?

Heart disease remains one of the UK’s biggest killers, second only to cancer. It contributes to the deaths of over 150,000 people in England, Wales and Scotland every year and it’s a problem that doesn’t look like it will be disappearing any time soon.

National heart disease statistics for every local authority have been published by the British Heart Foundation and newly analysed by life insurance provider British Seniors. The results, as shown on an interactive map reveal, among other things, that the north of England and Scotland have twice the levels of heart disease than the south of England. But why should this be the case?

You can make assumptions around a connection to diet, culture and a host of other factors and you may be at least partly right—we know why people develop heart disease, after all—but it could also be linked to something else: the general affluence of the local authorities and regions involved.

London and the South-East have historically been among the richest areas of the UK, and here they are clearly shown to be amongst the areas least affected by heart disease. Conversely, the north of England and Scotland have generally featured some of the poorest local authorities in the UK and are shown to be some of the most affected areas—five Scottish local authorities feature in the list of the worst ten, with three North-West local authorities and a region of Wales also included.

It is easy, however, to fall into the trap of making assumptions largely based around inaccurate stereotypes. Tameside in Greater Manchester (the fourth worst affected area on the list) has previously been cited by the BHF’s medical director as an area where ‘smoking rates, obesity, physical inactivity and poor diet are significantly higher … than the national average‘, but there is no link drawn between these factors and the affluence level of Tameside.

Heart disease, in fact, is often cited as ‘a disease of affluence‘. This assumes that those with more money are more likely to indulge in unhealthy foods because they can afford to buy them. It further assumes that wealthy people tend to have relatively sedentary, office-based jobs which don’t give them much exercise; that they have access to video game consoles and computers, which have roughly the same negative effect on their health; and that they have money to spend on luxury items like alcohol and tobacco, which inevitably increase the risk of heart disease. If that is the case though, surely the South would be more significantly affected by heart disease?

It does arguably come down to what you do with the wealth you have. If you spend it on unhealthy foods and cigarettes, your risk of heart disease will increase regardless of where you live, what you do or what the average heart disease levels are in your area. With this in mind, maybe the problem remains more cultural, rather than economic.

What is the truth, then? It is undeniable that the poorest areas do appear to be worst affected by heart disease, but if heart disease really is a disease of affluence then where does that leave us? Either way, it would appear that affluence does have a considerable effect on heart disease rates, regardless of whether a particular area is wealthy or not. It’s all about what you choose to do with the wealth you have that will determine whether the effects expected are to be positive or negative.