It’s a conundrum: Being unemployed increases your risk of death, but recessions decrease it.
While some past studies have shown that employees who lose their jobs have a higher mortality rate, others have shown that mortality actually declines in the population as unemployment rates increase.
Researchers from Drexel University in Philadelphia and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor set out to examine what could explain these contradictory findings.
Using a nationally representative panel of people across the United States, the researchers studied both processes concurrently. They discovered that job loss is associated with a 73 percent increase in the probability of death — the equivalent of adding 10 years to a person’s age.
But this increased risk affects only the minority of people who are unemployed and is outweighed by health-promoting effects of an economic slowdown that affect the entire population, such as a drop in traffic fatalities and reduced atmospheric pollution, the researchers reported.
They found that each percentage-point increase in a state’s unemployment rate reduces the hazard of death by approximately nine percent, which is about the equivalent of making a person one year younger.
“Most people believe that being unemployed is a bad thing,” said lead author José Tapia, Ph.D., an economist and population health researcher in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “But what many people don’t realize is that economic expansions — which usually reduce joblessness — also have effects that are harmful for society at large.”
“The increase in the risk of death associated with being unemployed is very strong, but it is restricted to unemployed persons, who generally are a small fraction of the population, even in a severe recession,” he continued.
“Compared with the increase in the risk of death among the unemployed, the decrease of the mortality risk associated with a weakening economy is small, but the benefit spreads across the entire adult population. The compound result of both effects is that total mortality rises in expansions and falls in recessions.”
While their investigation did not cover the potential causes for these phenomena, the researchers suggest that the increase in the risk of death associated with individual joblessness may be related to stress and depression, which often lead to substance abuse and other harmful behaviors.
Atmospheric pollution — which increases in economic upturns and diminishes in recessions — may be one of several factors explaining why population mortality tends to decrease when the economy stagnates, the researchers postulate.
“Other potential causes for the decrease of mortality risk during recessions could be changes in levels of stress and risk of injury in the working environment,” said Tapia.
“During economic expansions, work is done at a faster pace, more employees are commuting, workers have less average sleep, and so on — all of which can be linked to higher risk of heart attacks, vehicle crashes, industrial injuries, and enhanced circulation of germs. All of this reverses in recessions.”
The study was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Source: Drexel University