A new University study shows that although the current economic downturn may be hurting your income, it may also be helping your health.
According to a University study published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, life expectancy increased by six or seven years during the Great Depression, while deaths from disease, accidents and infant mortality decreased.
Researchers José Tapia Granados and Ana Diez Roux from the University’s Institute for Social Research used historical life expectancy and mortality data to analyze the relationship between economic growth and population health from 1920 to 1940.
They found that the life expectancy of men and women, both white and non-white, increased from 57 to 63 years between 1929 and 1932.
Mortality tended to peak during times of strong economic expansion, but declined during times of economic recession when there were even gains in life expectancy.
Of course, suicide mortality, which increased during the Great Depression, was the only exception.
Tapia Granados said he believes that general health tends to evolve more during periods in which the economy is weakened, while periods of economic expansion are not good for population health.
“I think that the study quite clearly shows that the ideas that economic recession are bad for society in all aspects are quite wrong,” he said. “In this case it is quite clear that the Great Depression, in the aspect of population health, was not at all harmful.”
During the economic expansion period known as the Roaring Twenties, population health stagnated and there was no progress in U.S. health as a whole, Tapia Granados said. However, during the economic recession of the 1930s, the general trend was an increase in longevity.
Although the study did not analyze potential causes for the pattern, including possible advances in technology and health care, the researchers offer some explanations about the trend.
Among other theories, during recessions, there is less work to do, more time to sleep and less money is spent on alcohol and tobacco because people do not have the means.
Tapia Granados included that a wrong interpretation of this study is that being unemployed is good for one’s health.
“The paper is looking at the whole population and cannot differentiate what was happening to people who had jobs and those who did not have jobs,” he explained. “To be jobless, to be unemployed, is not good for health. Even though in periods of recession more people are unemployed, at the population level, at the general level, the health of the people tend to improve.”
Tapia Granados said the study’s findings may also be applicable to the current economic downturn.
“Is this relevant for present conditions? Well I think so,” he said.
“Not because you can extrapolate what happened 70 years ago or 80 years ago to the present, but because there have been other studies in which effects of recessions and expansions of health have been looked at,” he continued. “They have been looked at in quite more recent periods, in the 1980s and 1990s, and the results of these studies are quite consistent with results for the Great Depression.”