If you assume that a recession is bad for life expectancy, you’d be in the majority. After all, the anxiety and stress of uncertain economic conditions, not to mention decreased individual and institutional resources to spend on on healthcare, should lead to worsening health and therefore reduced longevity.
But, Peter Orzag says in his latest Bloomberg View piece, despite this argument’s seemingly commonsensical appeal, it’s wrong.
In fact, the former Obama Administration budget director argues that as the economy gets worse, life expectancy increases:
Oddly, though, during recessions, exactly the opposite tends to happen: Life expectancy rises.
It’s happening again now.
The age-adjusted death rate in the U.S. declined by 2 per cent from 2007 to 2010, according to preliminary data from the centres for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, projected life expectancy at birth rose to 78.7 years in 2010 from 77.9 years in 2007, an increase of 0.8 year.
In contrast, from 2004 to 2007, when the economy was much stronger, life expectancy rose by only 0.4 year.
What drives this counterintuitive outcome? Not only does unemployment decrease traffic fatalities, Orzag cites a study finding unemployment deceases heart attacks, along with the prevalence of smoking and obesity.
These effects occur proportionately less among the elderly, adding to the punch they deliver to population-wide measures of longevity. That’s because, morbid as it is, a 45 year-old not dying does more to bolster average life expectancy than the death of a 80 year-old.
Of course, Orzag rightly notes that these statistical measures don’t capture the actual pain unemployment and reduced opportunity cause and don’t invalidate the pain cause by trends the statistics capture, like an increased suicide rate.
Orzag’s conclusion? The increase in life expectancy caused by recession, a strong economy is far, far preferable. The best course of action for policy makers is therefore support for the economy in the short-term followed by long-term deficit reduction.
We’d add an additional item to this agenda: address the systemic reasons that cause American workers’ livelihoods to shorten their lives.