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Could the Recession Be Good for Your Health?
Date:9/29/2009

Life expectancy rose during the Great Depression, study shows

TUESDAY, Sept. 29 (HealthDay News) -- The economic downturn may not be all bad. In fact, U.S. researchers say recessions may actually be good for health.

University of Michigan researchers looked at death rates during the Great Depression, the worst economic slump in the 20th century. From the stock market crash of 1929 through the early 1930s, economic activity fell sharply, dropping 14 percent in 1932, while unemployment hit 22.9 percent that same year.

Black and white images from the era of bread lines and migrant farmers make it easy to assume the economic misery would have affected public health.

But when the researchers looked at mortality rates among men, women and children from 1920 to 1940, they found death rates declined during years of falling economic activity and rose when times were better.

The study is in the Sept. 28 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

During the two decades spanning the 1920s and 1930s, overall life expectancy increased by 8.8 years. But it wasn't a steady rise, instead shooting up and falling back in a pattern that correlated with the rise and fall of economic activity.

Between 1921 and 1926, the so-called "Roaring 20s" and a time of robust economic growth, life expectancy for non-white men fell by 8.1 years. Yet between 1929 and 1933, the years of steepest economic decline, their life expectancy grew a similar amount.

Likewise, non-white women lost 7.4 years of life expectancy during the Roaring 20s, but they gained 8.2 years of life expectancy during the Depression.

Whites showed a similar pattern, though the loss in life expectancy wasn't as extreme as for non-whites.

"The basic finding of the paper is that mortality rates tend to evolve in parallel to the economy," said lead study author Jose Tapia Granados, an
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