Researchers Try To Measure How The Great Recession Hurt Our Health

When you pull the economic rug out from under people, what happens to their health? I'd never thought of the Great Recession as one big clinical trial, but that's the perspective of Harvard researchers in "Failing Economy, Failing Health," a sweeping new look at efforts to measure the health effects of the recession just out here.

Bottom line: We don't really know what economic downturns do to health yet, but it doesn't look good. The researchers featured in the piece are exploring potential links to "a growing list of physical and mental health ills, from heart attacks to obesity to depression."

Losing a job appears to raise your risk of premature death and new health conditions. And here's a particularly striking chunk about a 2010 poll:

The survey found that many people with heart disease, diabetes, or cancer believed that the downturn was hurting their health and that these negative impacts would only worsen over time. Among the facts unearthed by the poll: About a third of those with heart disease or diabetes and a fifth of those with cancer blame the economic downturn for forcing them to use up their savings to deal with medical bills, co-payments, and other expenses related to their illnesses. More broadly, according to the poll, some 4 in 10 Americans with heart disease or diabetes and 1 in 5 with cancer said the downturn had made it more stressful for them to manage their illnesses, a scenario that in itself may have exacerbated existing health problems.

Read the full piece for a broader exploration of how America's heavily employer-based health insurance system could interact with a recession to raise stress and hurt health.

But let's not end on a depressing note: There's also been some interesting research on drops in death rates during downturns, possibly — according to one theory — because high unemployment sends more workers to nursing homes, which helps save elderly residents' lives.

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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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