More good news about bad times: the Great Depression increased US life expectancy

Tuesday, October 20, 2009 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: Great Depression, health news, Natural News

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(NaturalNews) As recently reported in NaturalNews (, current economic woes could have a silver lining. A report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) by Dr. Stephen Bezruchka of the University of Washington's School of Public Health concluded that the recession might produce health benefits, in part because smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and overeating are likely to decline. Now comes more potential good news about bad times. According to a University of Michigan (U-M) study published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the infamous Great Depression resulted in a dramatically increased life span for Americans.

"The finding is strong and counterintuitive," Tapia Granados, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), said in a press statement. "Most people assume that periods of high unemployment are harmful to health."

The research team studied historical life expectancy and mortality data to search for associations between economic growth and population health during the years between 1920 and 1940. They discovered that life expectancy declined during periods of strong economic expansion, such as in 1923, 1926, 1929, and from 1936 to 1937. However, the health of Americans improved in general during the four years of the Great Depression and life expectancy increased from 57.1 years in 1929 to 63.3 years in 1932, according to the analysis. The increase in life span of 6.2 years was found for both men and women.

The U-M researchers investigated rates of death due to the six causes of mortality that were behind two-thirds of all deaths in the 1930s: cardiovascular and renal diseases, cancer, influenza and pneumonia, tuberculosis, motor vehicle injuries and suicide. The strong link between bad economic times and an improvement in health held true for all ages and for every major cause of death, with the exception of suicide.

Why employment is bad for your health

So what's behind the association between a sick economy and healthier people? The new study didn't specifically answer that question but Tapia Granados and fellow researcher Diez Roux have come up with possible explanations.

"Working conditions are very different during expansions and recessions," Granados said in the media statement. "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."

On the other hand, during recessions there can be a slower pace at work and that means less stress for workers. There is more time to get extra sleep and less money to spend on unhealthy extras like cigarettes and alcohol, Granados also noted. Moreover, he pointed out that times of economic growth are often associated with increases in air pollution which can negatively impact cardiovascular and respiratory health.

"Social science is not physics," Granados concluded. "But regularities in the past allow us at least some confidence in forecasting the future. Historical experience tells us that no particular deterioration of mortality is to be expected as a consequence of a recession beyond an increase in suicides which, although clearly important, is of small magnitude compared to the reduced number of fatalities from other causes."

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