The cost-of-living crisis is a public health issue

Having a warm, dry place to live, nutritious food, fair work and a sense of security are fundamental building blocks for a healthy life. Throughout 2022, we saw rapid rises in the cost of essentials – energy, housing, food and fuel (Figure 1) – that have outstripped average increases in people’s wages and welfare payments.

Figure 1. Annual consumer price inflation rate, UK, December 2020 to November 2022.

Source: Office for National Statistics (2022)

This has significant and wide-ranging negative consequences for mental and physical health and well-being (Figure 2).

For example, not having the money to put the heating on means living in cold and damp conditions. This increases the risk of heart attacks and stroke, as well as arthritic and respiratory conditions. Older people, children and babies are at particularly high risk.

Figure 2. Mapping the links between the cost-of-living crisis and health.

Figure 2. Mapping the links between the cost-of-living crisis and health.
Source: Public Health Wales (2022)

With food prices also high, many people are forced to choose between heating and eating, meaning households will face multiple challenges at the same time. As a result, many people are unable to adequately feed themselves or their families enough food, let alone nutritious, healthy food. A good diet is essential for good health in the short and longer term, with obesity a major risk factor for conditions such as diabetes and cancer. Making such difficult decisions on how to spend limited household budgets also takes its toll on mental health.

These health and well-being impacts are compounded by a system that is struggling to respond to growing need, with businesses, charities and public services also battling increased costs. This comes off the back of the pandemic, which put unprecedented demand on health and social care services.

While some of these problems will ease as costs fall, others may persist. For example, people who have gone into debt may still have debt even when inflation rates settle. Some people may have lost their homes or businesses. Others may still be affected by the poor health conditions they developed as a result of not being able to eat well, keep warm, stay connected to friends or attend medical appointments. They may not be able to look to a better future because fatigue and hunger stopped them from doing well at school. All these health and well-being impacts can extend throughout people’s lives and may transfer across generations.

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