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Updated 10:30 AM October 5, 2009
 

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  Research
Study: Life and death during the Great Depression

The Great Depression had a silver lining: During that hard time, U.S. life expectancy increased by 6.2 years, researchers say.

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," says Tapia Granados, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the Institute for Social Research. "Most people assume that periods of high unemployment are harmful to health."

For the study, researchers used historical life expectancy and mortality data to examine associations between economic growth and population health for 1920 to 1940. They found that while population health generally improved during the four years of the Great Depression 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 says. "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 says, 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.

The researchers note 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.

Results of the study appear in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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