The Upside to a Downturn: Mortality Rates Fall During Recessions

January 25, 2019, 10:36 AM UTC

During a recession as unemployment rates rise, contrary to reason, death rates drop. Researchers have been trying to figure this out for a century, the science journal Nature reports, but now with urgency, as economists predict a downturn on the horizon.

Throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, death rates reached all-time lows. The same held true for the Great Recession where death rates dropped across Europe despite record unemployment. Yet you clearly can’t call economic crises good for public health.

“If that were really true, then why don’t we just recommend recessions?” Ralph Catalano, a public-health researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, told Nature. There are clear negative health consequences for people in financial trouble, from stress-induced chronic diseases to mental-health problems.

Christopher Ruhm, an economist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, has a few theories as to why mortality rates drop during a recession. There are fewer job-related accidents, and people drive less to work, which improves overall air quality. People also have less money to spend on alcohol and cigarettes, as well as more time for sleep and recreation.

Despite this, other research shows that binge drinking increases during a recession. High blood pressure becomes more common, and as people lose their health insurance, maintenance or prevention of chronic diseases is likely to fall behind.

Social scientists and epidemiologists are realizing that losing a job might be bad for an individual’s health, while a declining economy could still be good for a population’s overall physical health (although not necessarily mental health). Knowing this, policymakers would be smart to steel themselves for the next downturn.

Most economists are predicting slower growth for 2019 rather than an actual recession. Larry Kudlow, head of the National Economic Council under President Trump, said, “In my personal view, our administration’s view, recession is so far in the distance I can’t see it.”

Nearly 30% of chief executives surveyed by PwC are expecting a decline in global economic growth in the next 12 months, however, up from just 5% last year. A majority of CEOs — 42% — think economic growth will improve in the next year, but the surge in those predicting a decline is the biggest PwC has ever recorded.

Health problems that arise during recessions might have less to do with the recession itself and more to do with the policy response, says David Stuckler, a political economist and sociologist at Bocconi University in Milan “Cutting public health is a false economy,” he says. “Unfortunately, it is a soft, easy target for politicians.”