NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are Recessions Good for Your Health?

September 4, 2003

Death rates fall during recessions, says Christopher Ruhm, of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He found that economic downturns improve the health of people because they alter their behavior.

Ruhm analyzed three key determinants to mortality: whether the person smoked, whether the person was obese and whether the person exercised regularly. He found that during temporary downturns, smoking and weight decline, while exercise rises. In particular, the drop in tobacco use is stronger for heavy smokers, the fall in body weight is larger in the severely obese and exercise increases most among those who were completely inactive.

  • Ruhm found a 1 percent rise in unemployment reduced the total death rate by 0.5 percent; studies in Spain, Germany and other nations have come to similar conclusions.
  • It does so by reducing the estimated prevalence of smoking by 0.6 percent, severe obesity by 1.4 percent, and physical activity by 1.5 percent.
  • The downturn affects different people differently: the 1 point increase in unemployment is expected to decrease severe obesity among males, blacks and Hispanics by 2.0, 3.1 and 4.3 percent, respectively, compared to 1 percent for both white and females.
  • In contrast, the same increase in unemployment reduced smoking among females by 0.8 percent, while males and blacks drop just 0.3 percent.

Ruhm argues that the greater availability of nonwork time may provide one reason for the healthier behaviors. It gives them more time to exercise and cook meals at home. Also, the decreased income prevents them from indulging in restaurants and cigarettes as often.

Source: Marie Bussing-Burks, "Why Economic Downturns Have Favorable Effects on Mortality," NBER Digest, June 2003; based upon Christopher Ruhm, "Healthy Living in Hard Times," Working Paper No. 9468, February 2003, National Bureau of Economic Research.

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