• Weird History

Health Issues Throughout History That Made People Think You Were Rich

Sometimes it feels like the rich get the best of everything: better cars, clothes, food - but do they get better diseases? While money can't buy everything, like a flattering royal portrait, it turns out that at certain points in history, the rich have had different afflictions than the people of lower-status classes. Differences in diet, genetics, and lifestyle have all contributed to a higher incidence of certain illnesses. For example, gout was so identified with the upper class it was called "the rich man's disease."

These diseases reach back to ancient Egypt and continue to this day. Some are the result of self-control issues and overindulgence, while others are caused by royal inbreeding or trends and fashion, but they all disproportionately affect the wealthy.

  • Photo: James Gillray / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Symptoms: Swelling, discomfort, and tenderness in the joints, often especially in the big toe.

    Causes: Gout is caused by an excess of urate, uric acid salts that can build up in a person's kidneys and joints. It is a form of arthritis that can come with age.

    Why It Impacted Elites: A rich, meat-heavy diet plays a major role in the development of gout, but it won't cause the condition alone. Being overweight and sitting around too much both contribute, as do complicating illnesses like high blood pressure and kidney problems, as well as the consumption of lead (which the upper classes used for silverware, drinking vessels, etc.). Because many believed gout was caused by a diet too expensive for common folk, it became identified as the "rich man's disease" since the time of the ancient Egyptians.

    Notable People Affected: Henry VIII, Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, Samuel Johnson, and Jared Leto

  • Photo: George Gower / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Symptoms: Spontaneous aches, holes in teeth, and brown or black staining.

    Causes: Excessive sugar, lack of fluoride, and inadequate toothbrushing.

    Why It Impacted Elites: The English loved their sugar. By 1770, the English consumed five times as much sugar as they had in 1710. However, due to the high cost of cultivating and shipping it back from the New World, sugar was still an expensive commodity mostly restricted to the upper class.

    Notable People Affected: Queen Elizabeth I, George Washington

  • Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Symptoms: Shortness of breath, palpitations, and increased likelihood of cardiac events.

    Causes: Obesity, high cholesterol, and a sedentary lifestyle.

    Why It Impacted Elites: In ancient Egypt, the upper classes were the only ones with regular access to richer foods like duck, beef, salted fish, and cheese, which caused high levels of cholesterol. In addition, the wealthy could avoid the kind of physical labor common among the lower classes.

    Notable People Affected: Pharaoh Merneptah, Frederick Douglass, Bing Crosby

  • Photo: British Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Symptoms: High blood pressure, joint and muscle pain, as well as mood disorders.

    Causes: Exposure from water pipes, dishware, pottery, and soil.

    Why It Impacted Elites: For much of the Middle Ages, the urban upper classes were eating and drinking from ceramic plates and cups glazed with lead. This kind of ceramic work was expensive, thus limited to the wealthy.

    Notable People Affected: Beethoven, Caravaggio, Emperor Nero