Poverty erodes a person's health more than smoking, drinking or lack of exercise, a Statistics Canada study suggests.
Education and income were more important for middle-aged health than acting healthy, said the study, released on Monday.
"Among middle-aged adults aged 45 to 64, socio-economic characteristics such as the education level and household income were more important determinants of healthy aging than healthy behaviours," it said.
The eight-year study of middle-aged adults found that only after the age of 65 does healthy living impact health more than financial well-being.
Some older people are simply too poor to live a healthy life, said Wally Coates, a board member of a Saskatchewan seniors group.
"A lot of them are eating cheaper foods," Coates said. "They're not necessarily getting a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables. Because that all adds up to more money, eh? It's just not a lot of money, if you have to live in the neighbourhood of 12,000 a year."
The Statscan researchers warned, however, that it's too early to determine the consequences of unhealthy living for the middle-aged segment of the study, which is continuing.
And it suggested that people benefit in the long term by healthy living.
As in previous studies, the government research also suggests that moderate drinking could protect against illness.
Norm O'Rourke, a gerontology professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, objected to the finding. He called it "crude."
"Moderate alcohol consumption is very strongly tied to socio-economic status," O'Rourke said. "If you're sitting down each night for a dinner with a glass of wine, the likelihood is that you don't have Wendy's take-a-way."
He said the study didn't pay nearly enough attention to the crucial role of attitude, noting a person's outlook on life is very important as they get older.