WEDNESDAY, Feb. 1, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Poverty significantly shortens life expectancy and should be regarded as a major health risk factor, a new study suggests.

Researchers analyzed 48 studies that included more than 1.7 million people in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland. They found that poor people were 46 percent more likely than wealthier people to die before age 85.

Among poor people, about 15 percent of men and more than 9 percent of women died before age 85, compared with more than 11 percent of men and about 7 percent of women who were wealthier.

The researchers concluded that being poor was associated with a 2.1-year reduction in life expectancy. This is similar to being inactive, which cuts life expectancy by 2.4 years -- more than the reductions associated with high blood pressure, obesity and heavy drinking, the researchers added.

The study was published Jan. 31 in The Lancet.

Poverty is one of the strongest predictors of illness and early death worldwide, but is often not included in health policies, the researchers said.

"Given the huge impact of socioeconomic status on health, it's vital that governments accept it as a major risk factor and stop excluding it from health policy," said study lead author Silvia Stringhini of Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland.

"Reducing poverty, improving education and creating safe home, school and work environments are central to overcoming the impact of socioeconomic deprivation," she said in a journal news release.

"By doing this, socioeconomic status could be targeted and improved, leading to better wealth and health for many," Stringhini added.

A low social rank means being powerless to determine your own destiny, said Martin Tobias, a public health consultant from New Zealand. If you're impoverished, you're "deprived of material resources, and limited in the opportunities open to you, which -- the authors imply -- shapes both your lifestyle and your life chances," he wrote in an accompanying editorial.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on life expectancy.