It seems reasonable that difficult economic times would be harder on people's health, if for no other reason than the effects of stress from factors like lower incomes and job losses. However, a recently released study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) suggests that the opposite is true.
The report, titled "Health Effects of Economic Crises," builds upon previous research on difficult economic times and the effects on health as measured by mortality rates. The study's author, Professor Christopher Ruhm of the University of Virginia, found in a previously published study that economic recessions produced lower mortality rates — among the reasons were lower death rates from traffic accidents and diseases. The new study looked at more severe economic crises and essentially came to the same conclusion.
National, state, and county data from 1976 to 2013 were examined and mortality rates compared to national economic crises. As with the previous study, Americans appeared to be healthier overall during tougher economic times. Professor Ruhm suggests that part of the reason is a corresponding decrease in harmful behaviors such as smoking and drinking to excess.
On one level, that makes sense — if you are unemployed or your wages have dropped, as much as you may want to smoke or drink to excess, you probably cannot afford to. The same analogy should extend to overeating or other habits of excess — even driving for pleasure instead of necessity. The more people who are on the road, the more likely it is that accidents will rise.
There appears to be at least some relationship to the depth of recession and improved health. During two of the greatest recent recessions, the one at the start of the 1980s and the Great Recession of 2007-2009, Ruhm found that the effects of the recession "had a protective effect on total mortality that was around twice as large as predicted by the higher unemployment rate occurring during such periods alone."
Worse times make us even less likely to die? That seems to be the case.
One would expect suicide to increase during difficult times, but the study did not find that the economy had any significant effect on the suicide rate.
The study does not delve into the reasons why mortality rates would drop, aside from the discussion of healthier behaviors. Other factors that could play a role:
- Pollution – With less economic activity, factories are running less often while collective commuting drops. People drive less for all reasons, and begin conserving energy wherever possible. All of these economically reasonable behaviors will decrease pollution, and could affect collective health.
- Time Lag – Previous NBER research concluded that unemployment increases led to poorer diets, particularly with respect to fruit and vegetable consumption. Perhaps the effects of economic hardships and mortality are delayed, with habits and temporary lifestyles that are not truly healthy, but do not cause death unless the bad habits are reinforced in better times.
- Family Effect – Families may feel a greater sense of togetherness and pulling together in economic times, protecting themselves collectively from destructive behaviors. "We'll get through this together" can be a powerful motivator to keep family members in line.
The correlation between mortality rates and economic downturns may not be true in other countries, but they do appear valid within the U.S. We are indeed a resilient people.
Perhaps Professor Ruhm managed to verify statistically a famous old legend: "What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." This study suggests that it does, at least with respect to economic concerns.