A new study out of the University of Michigan indicates that life expectancy during the Great Depression increased by 6.2 years, from 57.1 in 1929 to 63.3 years in 1932.
The finding is counterintuitive, but also makes sense. During periods of economic expansion when companies are busy, people work longer hours at a faster pace, which leads to unhealthy eating habits, more smoking, and more drinking.
The study shows that while population health improved during the four years of the Great Depression and during recessions in 1921 and 1938, life expectancy declined during periods of strong economic expansion, such as 1923, 1926, 1929, and 1936-1937.
Quoting from the Science Daily article about the study:
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.
Suicide rates did increase during the Great Depression, going from 14 to 17 out of every 100,000 Americans. A similar trend may be asserting itself during the latest recession. According to the National Suicide Prevention Hot line, calls went from 412,768 in 2007 to 540,041 in 2008.
Other possible reasons for the research finding:
Economic expansions are also associated with increases in atmospheric pollution which has well-documented short-term effects on cardiovascular and respiratory mortality. Other reasons that periods of economic expansion may be bad for health could include increases in social isolation and decreases in social support that typically occur when people are working more.
Granted, we’re not by any means in the same boat now as people were during the Great Depression. 10% unemployment is bad, but 25% unemployment is phenomenally bad. Many more people are still working at a fever pace now versus then, so whether we’ll enjoy a health boost from tough times remains to be seen.