The same economic downturns that hurt our financial well-being help our physical health, it turns out.
The paper was written by Christopher J. Ruhm, a University of Virginia professor of public policy and economics. It was released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private nonprofit based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Ruhm analyzed prior research as well as additional national, state and county data in the United States from 1976 to 2013. He sought to determine whether severe economic crises like those of the 2007-2009 recession affect mortality differently than more garden-variety economic fluctuations.
Ruhm tentatively concluded that both less severe fluctuations and more severe recessions lead to improvements in physical health, writing:
“There is considerable evidence that harmful behaviors — like heavy drinking and smoking — decrease in bad economic times, whereas health-enhancing activities such as exercise and social interactions increase.”
He found this to be especially true of more recent, deeper recessions:
“What is new is evidence that the severe national recessions occurring at the beginning of the 1980s and the end of the first decade of the 21st century had a protective effect on total mortality that was around twice as large as that predicted by the higher unemployment rates occurring during such periods alone.”
A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 similarly concluded that, during the Great Depression of 1930-1933, “population health did not decline and indeed generally improved, … with mortality decreasing for almost all ages, and life expectancy increasing by several years.”
The only exception during the Great Depression was an increase in the suicide rate, a phenomenon that a separate study also has linked to the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
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