I previously posted on Christopher Ruhm's research that shows recessions can improve one's health. Ruhm recently did an interview with the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank where he discussed his work in this area. Below are some excerpts:
RF: One of your articles is provocatively titled, "Are Recessions Good for Your Health?" Discuss the relationships you've discovered between economic growth and health.
Ruhm: Many years ago I did quite a lot of work examining the consequences of job turnover and labor displacement. One of the things you would read a lot about at the time was that when the economy stagnates, lots of bad things would happen. Wages don't go up and housing values fall. Then you'd also see other things reported such as how more marriages break up, crime increases, and health deteriorates. That seemed plausible, so I read a bunch of studies that had been done and realized they weren't using state-of-the-art methods. They were written by epidemiologists and social psychologists but did seem to include plausible mechanisms: When the economy goes bad, for instance, people get stressed out and stress is bad for your health. In addition, stress leads to people drinking more and smoking more and they engage in all this risky behavior as a consequence. I doubted the specific estimates, but not the overall direction of the effect. I wanted to come up with a better way to confirm the results and ended up finding something different.
In these early studies by others, there was a tendency to look at long time-series of aggregate data. They'd look at the United States or Britain from the 1930s to the 1970s and look to see, when the economy gets better, whether the health measures — hospital admissions or mortality rates — were improving or deteriorating. The studies tended to find that when the economy improved, health seemed to get better. But lots of things were going on at once during that period. For example, at roughly the same time the Great Depression ended, there were improvements in nutrition and in the availability of antibiotics.
So I looked at each state in the United States as a laboratory. I studied changes within states relative to what was going on in other states. The advantage to this method is that if there was a change in, say, medical technology, it is likely to affect workers in all states. But the Virginia economy might be improving at the same time the Texas economy is worsening. You can use the fact that there was independent variation in macroeconomic conditions across states to estimate the effects on health.
My first analysis of mortality rates was not at all what I expected. When times were good, mortality rates were increasing and when times were bad they were decreasing. When I first got the results, I didn't particularly believe them. I expanded the analysis in a variety of ways to see if the results would change, but they didn't.
What ultimately convinced me of the result is [that] I made a picture that overlaid the national mortality rates and unemployment rates — after de-trending them and normalizing them so the scales matched — and when I did all that, I found they were almost a mirror image. It was at that point I really believed my results.
The reasons for mortality increasing when the economy strengthens vary by cause of death. If you look at motor vehicle fatalities, they go up pretty dramatically when the economy improves. That's not so surprising. People drive more when times are good. But it's also true that deaths from heart disease or flu and pneumonia go up when the economy improves and down when the economy deteriorates. Across a wide variety of health measures I was finding the same result.
There were a couple of exceptions. Cancer was unrelated to economic trends. Since we were looking at relatively short-term changes, it's no surprise that we would see this result. Whereas, for something like heart attacks, we do notice that short-term macroeconomic changes can have a big effect.
Another exception was suicides. They went down when the economy improved, and up when it deteriorated. That's consistent with a long line of work on suicides. That also suggests to me, since suicide has a mental health component, it might be the case that economic patterns I had identified mainly refer to physical health measures. That led me to conclude that when the economy tanks, people are healthier but they may not necessarily be happier.
RF: What sorts of mechanisms do you think drive the health trends you studied?
Ruhm: In my research, I also look at behaviors, like drinking, smoking, and exercise. All of these trends exhibit a consistent pattern. When the economy weakens, people smoke less, they are less likely to drink heavily, and they tend to exercise more.
If you look at drinking, you notice that heavy drinkers become light drinkers when the economy deteriorates. Yet light drinkers don't abstain from drinking. For smoking, you see the same result. People also shift from being sedentary to being somewhat active, but not very active. We also don't see a big change in the number of people who are overweight, but we do see a reduction in severe obesity.