It is no secret that recessions have numerous negative impacts on the health of the people who live through them. In the Great Recession, over five million Americans lost their health insurance, either though employers terminating benefits or job loss. As a consequence, people are reluctant to obtain preventative care or go for screenings to identify illnesses early in their progression, according to data collected by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Then among those who keep their jobs the perception of employment insecurity can erode health and increased depression. A study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that "persistent perceived job insecurity is a significant ... predictor of poorer self-rated health."
Despite these harms, it is also true that during recession death rates fall and people live longer. For example a study from the University of Michigan found that between 1900 and 1996 the death rates rise and fall with economic growth, with the lowest mortality rates occurring during the sharpest downturns. By one estimate, a one percent decrease in employment positively correlates with a 0.54 percent decrease in mortality which translates to about 13,000 averted deaths per year.
So why do people live longer during a recession?
One suggestion is that during times of economic progress the use of tobacco and alcohol as well as obesity increase, while hours of nightly sleep and exercise decrease. During an economic downturn people have more time to engage in healthy activities that decrease mortality such as preparing fresh meals and exercising.
Another possibility is that a decrease in economic activity reduces the total level of particulate air pollution because fewer people are commuting to jobs. While this has little impact on adults, improved air quality during recessions markedly improves infant mortality rates, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Neal Emrey of the Atlantic Wire believes the trend is explained by elder care.
"Nursing homes are chronically understaffed in times of economic prosperity. But, when the job market tightens, a 1 percent increase in unemployment sees full time employment in nursing facilities rise three times as fast," he said. "After a recession, when the economy picks back up and jobs become available again, low-skilled workers abandon nursing homes jobs' low pay and even fewer accolades for better prospects. The shift of workers in and out of nursing jobs drives the swings in the national death rate and underscores the importance of these under-appreciated jobs."