People live longer during recessions – new study

Published: 9 August 2016 at 16:13

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But data from 1960-2010 shows suicide rates increase during economic downturns

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People live longer during economic recessions but the incidence of suicides and mental health problems increase, according to research published today by IZA World of Labor.

The paper, by Dr Nick Drydakis of Anglia Ruskin University, has investigated data from various national and regional studies carried out across Europe, Asia and the United States between 1960 and 2010.

The research found that for every 1% increase in the rate of unemployment, mortality rates fall on average by 0.5%. However, for every 1% rise in unemployment, suicides increase by an average of 1% (1.3% in the US and 0.9% in the EU).

Recent data shows that suicide rates in the US and the EU have been on an upward trend since the Great Recession of 2008, and the link between suicide and unemployment is strongest amongst the under 40s.

Unemployment or income loss is thought to result in adverse mental health symptoms because people are stripped of certain functions of employment such as a collective purpose, goals, physical security, social contact and status.

The reason for the fall in mortality rates during economic downturns is less clear. Recessions can provide time to allow people to lead a healthy lifestyle, by cooking their own food and exercising more, and research from the US suggests that motor vehicle deaths decrease during recessions, probably because fewer people commute to work.

However, some researchers believe the relationship between mortality rates and business cycles should be viewed over a longer time period. Adverse health consequences might not appear until the recovery phase is underway and the effects of increased alcohol or tobacco consumption, for example, could take several years to reveal themselves. Studies also fail to provide data on those directly affected by unemployment, but simply overall mortality rates.

Dr Drydakis, Reader in Economics at Anglia Ruskin University, said:

“Although these studies show a fall in mortality rates during recessions amongst the population as a whole, they may worsen rates amongst specific social groups.

“Country-level studies do not allow for a clear identification of who has been affected, how they have been affected, or to determine the magnitude of the impact on specific health conditions.  Austerity measures that may be common during recessions, such as budget cuts to social welfare, mainly affect vulnerable groups and the long-term unemployed.

“Social planners should acknowledge that the extent to which recessions affect a population’s health depends on the extent to which vulnerable people are protected.  Minimum income benefits, long-term unemployment benefits and access to health and mental health services can be effective ways of mitigating the adverse effects of recessions.

“It is also important to have a better understanding of the time lag involved before any causal conclusions about the relationship between recessions and health status can be drawn.  Serious health and mortality consequences from economic recessions could exist, but might only show themselves after a significant time delay.”