Manual workers suffer the effects of old age 15 years earlier than people in office jobs, new research has revealed.
The largest study of ageing ever conducted in Britain uncovered a dramatic imbalance between the two ends of the social spectrum.
Those in lower socio-economic groups appeared to age much faster, suffering more disabling illness and mental decline.
The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing collected data from more than 12,000 individuals over the age of 50.
It found that among the 50 to 59 age group, men in routine and manual jobs were twice as likely to have a limiting long-standing illness as those in professional and managerial occupations.
Not until the men were 75 and older were the two groups equally likely to suffer long-term illness.
Until that time, the chances of a professional man being chronically ill were much lower. Only just over a quarter of professional and managerial men aged 60 to 64 reported a limiting long-standing illness.
The pattern held true for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis and lung illnesses. In general, it applied more to men than women.
A similar picture emerged when the researchers looked at mental ability. Mental tests showed that university graduates aged 75 and over matched and sometimes even surpassed the performance of younger people who lacked their academic qualifications.
Co-author Sir Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, said: “It surprised me to find that people from lower socio-economic groups suffered illnesses 15 years before professionals.”
The study was conducted by researchers from UCL, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and the National Centre for Social Research.
They said the level of physical impairment generally among relatively young individuals was “surprisingly high”.
A total of 43% of participants in their 50s reported difficulty with mobility, and 13% had problems carrying out basic daily functions.
At the same time, almost 60% of people in their 80s and older reported no difficulties with the basic activities of daily life.
The study also showed that less than three quarters of men aged 55 to 59, and fewer than half those aged 60 to 64, were currently working.
For women, these figures were around 60% and 30% respectively.
Inequality of wealth across the older population was much greater than that of income.
Excluding properties and pensions, half the population aged 50 and over had less than £12,000 to their name, and a quarter had less than £1,500.
This was despite “average” financial wealth being more than £40,000. The discrepancy showed the degree to which “average” wealth figures were driven by a few very wealthy individuals, said the researchers.