Study: Life and death during the Great Depression

The Great Depression had a silver lining: During that hard time, U.S. life expectancy actually increased by 6.2 years, according to a University of Michigan study published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Life expectancy rose from 57.1 in 1929 to 63.3 years in 1932, according to the analysis by
U-M researchers José A. Tapia Granados and Ana Diez Roux. The increase occurred for both men and women, and for whites and non-whites.

"The finding is strong and counterintuitive," said Tapia Granados, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR). "Most people assume that periods of high unemployment are harmful to health."

For the study, researchers used historical and mortality data to examine associations between economic growth and for 1920 to 1940. They found that while population health generally improved during the four years of the and during recessions in 1921 and 1938, mortality increased and life expectancy declined during periods of strong economic expansion, such as 1923, 1926, 1929, and 1936-1937.

The researchers analyzed age-specific mortality rates and rates due to six causes of death that composed about two-thirds of total mortality in the 1930s: cardiovascular and renal diseases, cancer, influenza and pneumonia, tuberculosis, motor vehicle traffic injuries, and suicide. The association between improving health and economic slowdowns was true for all ages, and for every major cause of death except one: suicide.

Although the research did not include analyses of possible causes for the pattern, Tapia Granados and Diez Roux offer some possible explanations about why population health tends to improve during recessions but not expansions.

"Working conditions are very different during expansions and recessions," Tapia Granados said. "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. This can create stress, which is associated with more drinking and smoking.

"Also, new workers may be hired who are inexperienced, so injuries are likely to be more common. And people who are working a lot may also sleep less which is known to have implications for health. Other health-related behaviors such as diet may also change for the worse during expansions."

In recessions, Tapia Granados noted, there is less work to do, so employees can work at a slower pace. There is more time to sleep, and because people have less money, they are less likely to spend as much on alcohol and tobacco.

In addition, economic expansions are also associated with increases in atmospheric pollution which has well-documented short-term effects on cardiovascular and respiratory mortality. Other reasons that periods of economic expansion may be bad for health could include increases in social isolation and decreases in social support that typically occur when people are working more.

The researchers noted that their study examined the relation between recessions and mortality for the population as a whole, and not the effect of becoming unemployed on an individual person. In fact, their results show that downturns in economic activity may have overall beneficial effects on the population, even if becoming unemployed has adverse health consequences for a given person.

"Social science is not physics," Tapia Granados said. "But regularities in the past allow us at least some confidence in forecasting the future. Historical experience tells us that no particular deterioration of mortality is to be expected as a consequence of a recession beyond an increase in suicides which, although clearly important, is of small magnitude compared to the reduced number of fatalities from other causes."

Other studies suggest that the relationship between population health and business cycles may be weakening, at least in the U.S. and in Japan, where the phenomenon of karoshi---sudden death from overwork among Japanese salarymen---dramatically illustrates the dangers of life in economic boom times.

Still, Tapia Granados hopes that a better understanding of the beneficial effects of recessions on health may perhaps contribute to the development of economic policies that enhance health and minimize or buffer adverse impacts of economic expansions. And he cautions that the findings also suggest that suicide prevention services---often the casualties of budget cuts during economic downturns---are more important during bad times than ever.

Source: University of Michigan (news : web)

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Sep 28, 2009
I have always heard that during depressed times alcohol consumption goes up, not down.

Did they consider over-consumption as the cause of increased morbidity during economic growth? Science exists that shows caloric restriction is a life-extender. Eat less, live longer. In times of wealth people eat more calorie-dense foods.

Sep 28, 2009
During depressions people also tend to have fewer children so there will be a big depression in the relatively high death rates of the 0-5 year old category.

Sep 28, 2009
I'd add: during a depression, in an era when job safety was minimal, working conditions often terrible, at least some people were better off not being exposed to it. Also, during that period, there were no major wars.

Sep 28, 2009
In modern times we are reading more about how eating less is important to longevity. Often, times of rapid economic expansion tend to also be times of excess in many aspects of our lives. Industrial work pre-Trade organization, pre-WW2 and especially pre-OSHA (USA) tended to be very hazardous to worker health. Prohibition existed here in the States from 1919 to 1933, a time period in which the reported life expectancy spike rests. Perhaps simply not being employed, or not consuming so much was safer to public health? I'd hesitate to point to any specific factor without more research and supporting evidence, but I have noticed a general downturn in USA per worker injuries, not including medical workers, over the last few years via the Bureau of Labor Statistics - again during an economically slow period.

Sep 29, 2009
So being unemployed and homeless while starving to death is good? Green Shoots!!
I suspect the numbers from the Great Depression are unreliable as there was mass starvation and no one was counting any more.
But then what do I know I am not getting large sums of government grant money.

Oct 04, 2009
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