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A shocking twist of economic proportions

The NBER study showed that the Great Recession "substantially reduced mortality." The researchers estimate that the increase in the unemployment rate reduced the average, annual age-adjusted mortality rate by 2.3% for at least 10 years. This translates to an extra year of life for 4% of 55-year-olds.

The researchers, who work at MIT, the University of Chicago and McMaster University in Canada, were surprised by their discovery. The common understanding is that mortality increases during recessions.

That would make sense, right? Recessions mean increased unemployment, unemployment leads to financial stress, stress leads to heart attacks, and heart attacks often lead to death.

So when the NBER researchers found mortality reductions during the Great Recession, they then decided to review past recession data. It turns out that prior recessions also saw reductions in mortality.

So why would a cataclysmic and world-changing event be healthier for people?

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The environment wins

The NBER researchers decided to thoroughly investigate their conclusions. They thought perhaps the mortality reduction stemmed from people working less. Even though that increased their financial stress, it decreased their day-to-day stress of working and commuting.

But that didn’t account for much of the correlations they found. Well, except that last bit: commuting.

It turns out that the biggest cause of the mortality reduction of the Great Recession was a change in the level of air pollution. It accounted for a third of the mortality reductions during that time.

Because people were working less, they commuted less, so there were less carbon emissions. Plus, with less people working, that meant there were less people at all workplaces, including factories, where there are often other horrible things in the air. So generally, there was less exposure to noxious fumes and chemicals for many people during the Great Recession.

The researchers discovered that people with high school diplomas or less education were one of the largest groups to see health benefits from 2007 to 2009. This may be because they’re more likely to live in more polluted environments or have jobs that require exposure to poor air quality, such as at a factory. It makes sense that their health would have improved more so than an office worker, whose biggest health risks probably include lower back pain and caffeine jitters.

They also believe that the reason the reduced mortality rate persisted is because of the lowered air pollution (less commuting, less industrial activity) in places where unemployment stayed high.

Retirees particularly benefit from recessions

Good news, seniors: the next recession could extend your life.

The researchers discovered that mortality reduction was also particularly felt by those 65 and over. This was strange to the researchers because many of the seniors weren’t working, so stress reduction or commuting wouldn’t make a difference to them.

But it turns out that the overall increase in air quality simply made it easier for seniors to breathe. Poor air quality leads to increases in cardiovascular issues, something that seniors are already at risk for.

Plus, with less driving happening, there was a general decrease in risk for motor vehicle accidents. This was good for everyone, not just seniors.

However, the researchers admit that they can't say for sure why mortality rates decreased during the Great Recession. But it’s nice to know that something good came out of it.

Next time you see a recession coming, just know that your investments may be screwed, but your body may thank you.

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About the Author

Sabina Wex

Sabina Wex


Sabina Wex is a writer and podcast producer in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, Fast Company, CBC and more.

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