Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Recession's Silver Lining

Here's some economic news that might seem a little odd. Recessions (and depressions) may actually be good for your health. At least, that's the result of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that's looking at the connection between the economy and certain health statistics.

In this particular study, the research team from the University of Michigan's Institute of Social Research looked at two health measures: life expectancy based on birth year, and death from non-natural causes (in this study specifically heart disease, kidney disease, tuberculosis and traffic accidents). These are fairly standard measures of health, and can give you a snapshot of how well a population is fairing. When they compared these health measures to the economic picture over time, a few interesting points fell out.

First, when you look at longevity through the 1920s it actually drops as the decade progresses. Then, in 1929, as the great depression begins, it jumps back up. In fact life expectancy increased an average of about 8 years over this period, which is a big change. Also the deaths from non-natural causes dropped right down during the great depression. Both flipped again once the depression was over, that is until 1936, when there was another economic downturn, and once again we see an improvement in overall health.

This seems counter-intuitive, if you look at the difference between developing and developed countries, it's easy to see how lower economic development generally maps onto lower quality of health. But the researchers point to China, where there are relatively high standards of health, as well as increasing economic development. On first blush, this would support the idea that money and health go hand in hand, except that health development in China happened decades before the economy improved. This suggests you can't trust cross-border comparisons when looking at the relationship between health and finance.

Secondly, another criticism could be that the effect on the poor is being washed out in the bigger picture, when you look at the rich and the poor together. After all, in a recession, the rich tend to get richer, and the poor, poorer. But in this study, the research team separate out the effects on whites and non-whites (which are, for the historical context, reasonable stand-ins for economic status) and found that overall non-whites had better health during the depression. So much for the poor suffering more.

What's behind all this? The answers are still speculative, but interesting. Here's one scenario. People have less free cash during a recession or depression, so they tend not to travel as much. In the 30s that would mean fewer car trips. Fewer cars on the road, fewer accidents. And without money, less alcohol gets consumed, which means less kidney disease. A lack of pollution (because the factories are shut down) could mean less lung disease in general, and from that less tuberculosis. And finally for heart disease, well, if you have a job, you're probably not being forced to work as hard as you once were, which means less stress, and fewer heart problems. Also, those without jobs usually had strong support at home, as well as in their local community, again lowering stress. With parents at home, that could contribute to raising small children, and given how the first few years are critical for long term survival, that may help explain why children were more likely to live until adulthood, skewing the statistics towards a longer life.

But while this is persuasive for looking at the depression, how well it maps onto the current recession is a difficult question. Causes of death are very different, cancer, for example, didn't make the list in the 1920s but is very important today. Researchers are not in agreement over how applicable this is to the current world. But what about looking to really figure out what was behind the improvements? If we can work out that, maybe that will help us come up with ways to improve everyone's life, recession or not.

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