Better health: Is that recession's silver lining?

During rosier economic times, people put in longer hours on the job, which can lead to stress and increased alcohol and tobacco use, researchers say.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted Oct. 7, 2009

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Who knew there could be a positive health benefit to the Great Depression and perhaps to the current economic downturn as well?

Researchers found that life expectancy rose during the first four years of the nation's bleakest economic period -- from 57.1 years in 1929 to 63.3 years in 1932. The increase was experienced by men and women and whites and blacks, according to a study published online Sept. 28 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (link).

"The finding is strong and counterintuitive," said lead author José A. Tapia Granados, PhD, assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor. "Most people assume that periods of high unemployment are harmful to health."

Tapia Granados said he is "90% sure" the finding will apply to the current economic downturn.

For their study, Tapia Granados and a colleague used life expectancy and mortality data to examine associations between economic growth and population health from 1920 to 1940. They found that population health generally improved during the first four years of the Great Depression and during recessions in 1921 and 1938. But mortality increased and life expectancy declined during periods of strong economic expansion that occurred in 1923, 1926, 1929 and 1936-37.

The researchers analyzed age-specific mortality rates and death rates from six major causes of death during the 1930s: cardiovascular and renal diseases, cancer, influenza and pneumonia, tuberculosis, motor vehicle traffic injuries, and suicide. The association between improved health and economic slowdowns was true for all ages and for each cause of death except suicide.

Among possible explanations for the finding is that the need to work longer hours and at a faster pace during expansions led to more stress and an increase in drinking and smoking, researchers said. During recessions, employees may get more sleep and, because they have less money, are not as likely to purchase alcohol and tobacco.

A better understanding of the benefits of recessions on health may contribute to the development of economic policies that enhance health and minimize or buffer adverse impacts of economic expansions, said Tapia Granados. He cautioned that suicide prevention services, which may be a casualty of budget cuts during economic downturns, are more important in bad times.

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