Why is there a cost of living crisis?

So far, there has been much to celebrate in 2022, including plenty of sunshine and a lockdown-free winter, spring, and summer. However, ranking high up on the 2022 cons list is the 'cost of living crisis'. This refers to the fall in disposable income, caused by tax increases and the rising costs of typical goods and services (known as inflation) since late 2021.

What has triggered these changes? This all started with the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns which froze economies around the world. It can take a while for economies to bounce back, and so as the world reopened and demand for goods and services returned to previous levels, crucial shortages - including oil, gas, and lorry drivers - drove prices up.

Since 2021, several other factors have made the situation worse. At the forefront is the war between Russia and Ukraine; fuel supplies and other essential industrial goods from these countries are either suffering shortages due to factory closures (from Ukraine) or have been intentionally cut off (from Russia).

It's worth noting that this is far from a simple issue with many factors at play. For example, mega-companies that dominate the oil industry have recently posted record profits1.

What is the impact on health and quality of life?

In the UK, the rising cost of living is already negatively affecting many people's health and quality of life.

In a YouGov survey carried out in April and May 20222:

  • 55% of Brits felt that it has negatively impacted their health.
  • 25% of this group had also had this confirmed by a medical professional.

Health inequalities between richer and poorer people are also apparent, with the latter experiencing a greater toll on their health. Sadly, the differences in health and healthcare access between different socio-economic groups is a long-standing issue, with the impact of these differences worsening due to the cost of living crisis.

It's also thought that health inequalities are costing the NHS in England £4.8 billion a year. According to one study3, people from the most deprived fifth of neighbourhoods have 72% more emergency hospital visits and 20% more planned visits than people living in the most affluent fifth of neighbourhoods.

"The surprise of the cost of living crisis is that people in above-average income groups are affected, too," adds Professor Sir Michael Marmot, director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity. "Food, heating, and transport appear to be having the greatest effect."

Cost of living - heating

Of the 55% Brits in the YouGov survey reporting poorer health, 84% blame the rising cost of heating2. This follows the price cap rise of gas in April 2022, implementing an unprecedented rise in household energy bills - the average UK bill increasing by a whopping 54%. The resulting energy crisis has pushed the number of homes living in fuel poverty to 6.5 million4.

The health risks

As autumn and winter approach, people who ration their heating to afford their bills are at risk of cold-related health problems. Elderly people are particularly vulnerable because they lose body heat faster5, and with over 7.8 million of them worried about heating their homes6, concerns are rising.

An older person with a body temperature below 35 degrees Celsius (°C) is at risk of health problems such as:

A cold house can also exacerbate less serious yet uncomfortable complaints, such as skin conditions like ulcers2.

Heating tips

  • Keep your home heated to at least 18°C and not below 16°C if you're elderly or have impaired mobility.
  • If you really need to reduce your heating bill, on milder days turn down your thermostat by one degree at a time, wait, and reassess if you need to again. This is better than dropping the temperature dramatically.
  • Check your boiler pressure isn't too low as this can cause your radiators to be less efficient.
  • Keep the area around your radiators clear.

Cost of living - food

Rising food prices are having the second biggest effect on our health after gas prices, according to 78% of Brits2. In fact, food prices are increasing at the fastest rate for 40 years.

Fresh and less processed foods have always been the more expensive food choice. Now recent grocery inflation is pushing these healthier options further out of reach for wide stretches of the public. Instead, many are turning to cheaper, less nutritious options such as microwave meals, or cutting back on food completely7.

Grocery inflation

The health risks

A diet with lower nutritional quality increases the risk of many health issues, such as:

Food tips

  • Nutritious yet affordable recipes can be found on anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe's website Cooking on a Bootstrap.
  • Food waste prevention apps like Olio allow you to pick up as well as share food that would otherwise have been chucked away for free.

Cost of living - transport

The cost of living crisis is also having an impact on our health in less direct ways. With oil driving up fuel prices, nearly all of us are feeling the pinch. Anecdotes reported by The Royal College of Physicians illustrate how this is affecting access to healthcare - with one patient not being able to afford travel to the hospital for lung cancer treatment2.

The risk of isolation for those unable to travel as much, as well as the stress many of us experience each time we fill up our vehicle tanks, are also likely to affect our mental health in a big way.

The health risks

Travel tips

  • Walk or cycle where you can - these also have other health benefits.
  • Check for bus discounts.
  • Invest in a railcard if you travel by train regularly.
  • Buy train tickets in advance where possible.
  • Shop around for better fuel prices.
  • Use apps like AppyParking to find free local parking, or Parkopedia for the cheapest nearby car parks.

Don’t underestimate financial stress

As wages fail to keep up with the cost of these essential amenities - as well as many other factors such as housing costs, swelling interest rates, and council tax rises - financial health, stability, and quality of life are on a lot of people's minds.

In May 20229:

  • 77% of adults reported feeling either somewhat or very worried about the cost of living crisis.
  • 50% of those who were very worried felt these worries almost every day.

Health risks

Financial stress shouldn't be underestimated. In itself, stress can have a massive impact on our day-to-day lives and reduce our quality of life. There is also evidence that long-term, unmanaged stress can help to develop or worsen several mental and physical health conditions, including:

Stress management

Some helpful habits to ease stress include:

If stress and anxiety are dominating your life, these helplines can also offer support:

  • Mind UK: 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans: 116 123
  • Anxiety UK: 03444 775 774

Will the cost of living go down?

"The cost-of-living crisis has barely begun so the fact that many people are already experiencing worsening health should sound alarm bells," says Dr Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians2.

Yet there is an end in sight, and it's important to remind ourselves of this fact. Experts are predicting that the cost of living will start to fall again around late 2023.

Further reading

  1. The Guardian, "The world is ablaze and the oil industry just posted record profits. It's us or them".
  2. Royal College of Physicians press release, "Over half of Brits say their health has worsened due to rising cost of living".
  3. University of York, "Researchers say inequality costs the NHS £4.8 billion a year".
  4. National Energy Action, "Energy crisis".
  5. National Institute on Ageing, "Cold weather safety for older adults".
  6. Age UK, "Number of older people worried about heating their homes".
  7. Sky news, "Cost of living ONS (Office for National Statistics) Survey".
  8. Age UK, "Loneliness, depression, and anxiety".
  9. ONS, "Worries about the rising costs of living, Great Britain: April to May 2022".

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