People’s health is influenced by social factors, including income, housing, education, diet and lifestyle – as well as age, gender and heredity.
From the late 19th century Pākehā became less likely to die from infectious diseases. They lived longer and died from illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. For Māori this change happened later, in the mid-20th century.
Socio-economic status (based on things like income, occupation and education) has a strong impact on health. People living in poorer neighbourhoods have lower life expectancy than those in wealthier areas. In the 1980s and 1990s, the gap between the mortality rates of the rich and the poor increased.
Māori and Pacific people have poorer health than other ethnic groups. Māori life expectancy increased dramatically after the Second World War – but in the 21st century it was still lower than that of Pākehā. In 2012–14 life expectancy at birth was 84 years for non-Māori women, 80 for non-Māori men, 77 for Māori women and 73 for Māori men.
Cancer is a major cause of death in New Zealand. Lung cancer is mainly caused by tobacco smoking – and poorer people and Māori are more likely to smoke. Heavy drinking, sun exposure, poor nutrition and obesity can also contribute to cancer.
Risk factors for heart disease include smoking, poor nutrition and lack of exercise.
Cold, damp houses and polluting forms of heating can lead to respiratory problems such as asthma.
From 1939 public hospital care was free. From 1941 prescription medicines were free and the government subsidised doctors’ fees. Charges were reintroduced for prescriptions in 1985, and since 2013 prescriptions have cost $5 for most people. Cost still put some people – especially poorer people – off going to the doctor. Some ended up in hospital for problems that their doctor could have solved earlier.
The government ran programmes encouraging women to be screened for breast cancer and cervical cancer. They promoted healthy food, exercise and stopping smoking.