Study: Bad Economy May Be Good for Your Health


MONDAY, Sept. 28, 2009 ( — Are you finally ready for some good news about the recession? As it turns out, a shaky economy might actually be good for your health.

Although it seems hard to believe, a new analysis of the Great Depression—the mother of all economic bad times—suggests that mortality dropped and life expectancy increased during that period.

Researchers estimate that around that time, a year with a 5% drop in the gross domestic product (GDP) was associated with a 1.9-year gain in life expectancy, while a 5% rise in the GDP lowered life expectancy by about one to two months.

And its not just the Great Depression, says Jose A. Tapia Granados, MD, of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Past research has shown similar results—at least a drop in mortality—in periods of U.S. economic recession during the 1980s and 1990s, as well as in recessions in other countries, Dr. Tapia says.

“In some sense it is good news,” he explains. “The usual view of a period of recession is that everything is bad during these periods.”

In a study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Tapia and his colleague Ana V. Diez Roux analyzed the economic growth and population health in the United States between 1920 and 1940, including the years of the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to 1933.

Life expectancy in general increased 8.8 years between 1920 and 1940, but gains fluctuated with the economy.

Next Page: Smoking, drinking tend to drop during recessions [ pagebreak ]They found that mortality declined and life expectancy increased during the Great Depression, as well as in the recessions of 1921 and 1938, compared to other years during that period. Suicides did increase during the Great Depression, but they made up less than 2% of deaths during that time.

When the researchers looked at six other major causes of death—including heart and kidney disease, tuberculosis, and traffic accidents—between 1920 and 1940, they noted that those causes all declined during recessions and rose during boom times. (A similar pattern was found for child and infant mortality too.)

During the Great Depression, life expectancy increased from 57.1 years in 1929 to 63.3 years in 1933, and nonwhites in particular showed large gains; nonwhite males gained eight years in longevity during the Depression, increasing from 45.7 years in 1929 to 53.8 years in 1933.

Although he didnt study homicide rates, Dr. Tapia says that some research suggests that homicides tend to drop during economic recessions.

Although its not clear why mortality rates might decrease during a recession, it is known that people tend to smoke and drink less, and they tend to eat out and drive less often, Dr. Tapia says. Although these are often for purely economic reasons, it can translate into fewer fatalities, he says.

Another theory is that in poor economic times, people come together and support one another more than they do when an economy is roaring, according to Dr. Tapia.

“This would improve the level of social cohesion and social support and could have a protective effect on health,” he says.

Next Page: New study fits with past research [ pagebreak ]Christopher Ruhm, PhD, has conducted research on mortality during recent recessions. He says the new findings arent “out in left field” and are consistent with research in milder recessions. However, the magnitude of the effect—and that it appeared during a time of almost total economic collapse, not just a recession—was unexpected.

“When you have the collapse of an economy, I would have thought there would be other things going on that are more than reversing that,” says Ruhm, a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “The Soviet Union, when it broke up and the economy just collapsed, that wasnt good for peoples health.”

Since doctors have made such strides with life expectancy in the past century (we are now expected to live until 77.7 years of age in the U.S.), the economy may have a smaller impact on health than the gains seen in the new study, he says.

“In a modern economy, I wouldnt think youd see anything near that large,” Ruhm says. His research suggests that for each percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate, mortality drops by half a percent.

“Thats a nontrivial effect, but in terms of major determinants of health, its not the dominant determinant of health or anything close to it,” he says.

Ruhm says his research doesnt provide any clues to coping with a job loss, but he has had people tell him they lost 30 pounds after being laid off because they stopped eating out and started exercising more. “Thats just anecdotal evidence, but it turns out the data provide some support for that,” he says.

According to Ruhm, outplacement counselors and therapists often advise people to take control of things they can do something about, such as paying attention to what you eat, trying to be a little more active, or working harder to connect with family. “At least the parts you can control, try to move those in a positive way—and the data suggest that people actually do that," he says.