Could there be a healthy upside to an economic downturn?
During the Great Depression of the 20th century, life expectancy actually increased in the United States, according to a new analysis of mortality statistics by University of Michigan researchers.
As the economy collapsed, life expectancy rose from 57.1 years in 1929 to 63.3 in 1932.
The findings are admittedly "counterintuitive," said the senior author of the paper, José Tapia Granados. "Most people assume that periods of recession are harmful to health."
But he says the opposite is true: A surge in economic growth can produce stress and other factors that could lead to an early death for some.
"During expansions, firms are very busy, they typically demand a lot of effort from their employees, who are required to work a lot of overtime and to work at a faster pace," he explained. Boom times also generate more pollution and social isolation, which can be bad for the body.
By contrast, when recessions take hold, workers are not under the gun in the same way, he says.
So, while an advancing economy generates extra wealth that is often invested in measures that improve public health, a spike in some stress-related deaths could drive down overall life-expectancy figures.
Dr. Tapia noted that the concept of life expectancy is often misunderstood. "It's kind of a summary of all mortality rates in a particular year," he noted. "When mortality rates go up, life expectancy goes down."
But how does he account for the fact that longevity has been increasing in many countries? After all, people on average are living longer and the economy is generally expanding.
Dr. Tapia readily acknowledges, "the curve of longevity during the 20th century is clearly a rising one." However, "longevity shows oscillations," he says.
"The statistical analysis shows that the curve is steeper in periods of recession than in periods of expansion, so that the improvement of population health during periods of weak economy is faster than during periods of fast economic growth. Indeed, the faster the economic growth, the more population health tends to stagnate or even sometimes reverse the rising trend, with losses in longevity."
Dr. Tapia, who has written extensively on long-term health, says his findings aren't all that new. Previous studies, conducted decades ago, found a similar flip-flop in life-expectancy statistics during boom-bust cycles. But those studies were largely ignored and forgotten because they didn't conform to conventional thinking, he said.
For his latest study, Dr. Tapia and research colleague Ana Diez Roux reviewed statistics for several key causes of death around the early part of the 20th century, particularly around the time of the Great Depression.
The results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that mortality from cardiovascular disease, influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis and motor-vehicle accidents "clearly increased during economic expansions and decreased during recessions." Deaths from cancer remained the same, regardless of economic conditions.
But there is one dark cloud in Dr. Tapia's bright assessment of recessions. Suicides rise among those hardest hit by the slump. Still, suicides represents a relatively small component of total mortality and can't counteract the overall trend.
Although Dr. Tapia's new study is based on a depression that occurred almost eight decades ago, he thinks the findings are still relevant today. And he believes that governments should adopt measures that protect people from overwork in the boom times - such as more statutory holidays. "That's something many people would like and it would be good health policy, too."