Scientists in Glasgow have developed a new test of the ageing process based on DNA evidence.
They have said it could provide faster feedback on public health measures.
Until now, evidence of health improvement has involved waiting a generation or more to measure how many people become ill.
Work by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health has confirmed the link between social factors and the rate at which people age.
Their findings have been published in the Public Library of Science.
The Telomeres tend to become shorter over a person's lifetime, indicating the speed of the ageing process.
The Glasgow researchers found that, over a 10-year period, telomeres shortened by an average of 7.7% in people whose household income was below £25,000. For those on higher incomes, the shortening averaged 0.6%.
Changes in diet
A similar trend in telomere lengths was found in comparisons of those in rented housing with home owners, and of those with the poorest diets and those who ate well.
Dr Paul Shiels, of the Institute of Cancer Studies at Glasgow University, said: "We show that accelerated ageing is associated with social status and deprivation in Glasgow.
"This is most prevalent in the over-55s and those with household incomes under £25,000.
"This effect is exacerbated by diet - simply not eating your five portions of fruit and veg a day."
The test gives an indication of ageing within population groups, but does not accurately measure the life expectancy of an individual, because of natural differences in telomere length.
Dr Shiels said: "Its value is at a population level, where large numbers of subjects allow us to observe trends over a period of time.
"It is a tool for looking at the impact of changes in diet, for example.
"This study is a first for Glasgow and indicates that socio-economic conditions do affect the rate at which you age."
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