When the economy tanks, not everything goes into the toilet. Though it seems as counterintuitive as Magnetic Hill, where cars in neutral roll up the mountain, history shows that during economic recessions, longevity increases and health improves. In fact, according to a new study out of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, the Great Depression ushered in a considerable leap in life expectancy, but as soon as the economy looked sunny again, life expectancy took a nosedive.
The study focused on the two decades between 1920 and 1940, a period of extreme economic volatility. During the years of the Depression, from 1929 to 1933, the gross domestic product dropped five percent while the population experienced a 6.2-year gain in life expectancy. The pattern held true for both genders and across ethnic groups. While life expectancy has consistently climbed since the 1920s (it was 57.1 years in 1929, and currently is 77 years), the gains were greatest and fastest during the years of the worst economic conditions. In the case of this study, life expectancy rose by 8.8 years during the entire 20-year span, with, as mentioned above, the majority of the increase — 6.2 years — occurring during the four years of the Depression. Of course, one needs to read life expectancy numbers with a skeptical eye since they don’t always mean what you think they mean.
Nevertheless, throughout the 20 years studied: whenever the economy improved, mortality rates went up. Whenever the economy suffered, mortality rates went down. Translated another way, according to Dr. Christopher Ruhm of the University of North Carolina, for every increase of one percent in unemployment, mortality rates drop by half a percent. And according to research director Dr. A. Tapia Granados, the same thing happened during the recession in the early 1980s and 1990s. Recessions abroad have seen the same pattern. On virtually every health parameter studied — heart problems, kidney disease, cancer, pulmonary disease, tuberculosis, infant mortality — recession ushered in improvements. The only exception was death by suicide, which did increase during the Great Depression.
“This is a pattern that is found again and again,” Dr. Granados confirmed. “The basic finding … is that mortality rates tend to evolve in parallel to the economy. When the economy goes up, mortality tends to go up. When the economy goes down, mortality rates tend to go down, too.”
The scientists have no definitive explanation for the unexpected phenomenon, but they do have some theories. First, they cite the fact that fewer people drive automobiles when the economy is bad. This means that fewer die in automobile accidents, which helps mortality statistics. It also means that air pollution from vehicular emissions decreases, reducing deaths triggered by particulate matter. Along a similar line of reasoning, when companies shut down, they add less pollution to the air, and so in times of low productivity air quality improves. Then again, wouldn’t the health benefits of better air quality be reflected several decades down the line after long term non-exposure?
An article in US News and World Report suggests that recession cuts into people’s cigarette and alcohol budget, and the less people drink and smoke, the healthier they stay. It’s a good theory, but there’s a credibility gap given the fact that recent data indicates that cigarette sales have gone up for the first time in years ever since the recession hit. Recent tax increases on cigarette sales may be impacting that trend, but overall, alcohol, tobacco, and chocolate are among the few items still selling well in spite (or possibly because of) the economy. And again, as with air quality, wouldn’t the mortality benefits show up several decades down the line? I mean, it’s not like you get cancer one month after smoking your first cigarette.
Dr. Granados postulates that the debilitating impact of working too hard explains higher mortality in boom times. “During expansions, firms are very busy, and they typically demand a lot of effort from employees, who are required to work a lot of overtime, and to work at a fast pace. Also, new workers may be hired who are inexperienced, so injuries are likely to be more common,” he says. He suggests that the stress may drive people to smoke, drink, and eat unhealthy foods — but again, data shows that smoking and drinking rates stay relatively stable as the economy fluctuates. But he’s probably on target in suggesting that work demands may cause people to sleep less, and of course, there’s the general impact of stress on the body to consider — and that’s a huge factor. Then again, you might think that being out of work would be incredibly stressful, but as it turns out, it’s not that simple.
Along those lines, another study perhaps offers some clues. The University of Michigan research compared two groups of subjects, one surveyed between 1986 and 1989 and another between 1995 and 2005. The study found that those who “feared” losing their jobs suffered far more health-wise than those who had actually been laid off or fired. “In fact, chronic job insecurity was a stronger predictor of poor health than either smoking or hypertension in one of the groups we studied,” the director of that study, Sarah Burgard, said.
The other viable theory that Dr. Granados puts forth is that economic distress causes people to band together. People have more time to spend socializing, and they tend to support each other more than when everyone has money. “This would improve the level of social cohesion and social support and could have a protective effect on health,” he says.
One possibility that none of the experts put forth is that when people can’t afford medical treatment, they fare better simply by avoiding doctors. They aren’t subject to harmful pharmaceuticals, hospital disasters, and dangerous diagnostic and surgical procedures. While public health officials fret and sigh that people aren’t getting the care they need, in fact, doing nothing may oftentimes be healthier than going to the doctor. Given the 98,000 deaths annually from medical error in the US, less exposure to medical practitioners may have a bigger impact on declining mortality rate than those other factors named. The bottom line is that it is not a coincidence that time after time, when doctors go on strike, mortality rates drop dramatically in those cities or countries affected by the strikes.
I’m certainly not saying there’s no place for health care and that we should all just ride out whatever ailments assail us without any intervention. But if illness does come, a natural health regimen may be the safest first choice, reserving pharmaceuticals and surgeries for the most dire cases and for illnesses that won’t respond to less invasive approaches. Hopefully, this is a lesson the public can learn without having the economy completely bottom out.