While some studies have associated unemployment with increased risk of death, others claim that recessions reduce mortality. With such contradictory findings, what are we to believe? A new study led by Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, finds that both claims stand, and provides insight into why this is.

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Researchers found that job loss is linked to a 73% higher risk of death, but that the effects of a recession could counteract this risk.

The research team, led by José Tapia, PhD, an economist and population health researcher at the College of Arts and Science at Drexel University, recently published their findings in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The investigators analyzed data from the US Department of Labor, and data of the years 1979-1997 from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics.

The researchers then developed a model that allowed them to estimate how an individual’s employment status and their surrounding economic conditions – determined by the unemployment rate in the state the person was living in – influenced their risk of death.

The team notes that they accounted for potential confounding factors, such as age, sex, marital status, household income and past health. In addition, they say the statistical models also accounted for a trail in certain confounding factors – such as a person’s employment status 1 or 2 years prior to the study – so the possibility that having poor health increases risk of unemployment and death was taken into consideration.

Results of the study revealed that losing a job is associated with a 73% higher risk of death, which the team says is the equivalent of adding 10 years to a person’s age.

But Tapia and colleagues say their findings showed that this increase in mortality risk only affects a small number of people who are unemployed, and a recession may actually have counteracting effects on mortality risk of the overall population.

Every percentage-point increase in a person’s state unemployment rates was a linked to a 9% reduction in the risk of death – the equivalent of reducing a person’s age by 1 year.

Explaining these findings, Tapia says:

The increase in the risk of death associated with being unemployed is very strong, but it is restricted to unemployed persons, who generally are a small fraction of the population, even in a severe recession.

Compared with the increase in the risk of death among the unemployed, the decrease of the mortality risk associated with a weakening economy is small, but the benefit spreads across the entire adult population. The compound result of both effects is that total mortality rises in expansions and falls in recessions.”

The study did not explore the reasons behind these findings, but they say the increase in death risk linked to job loss may be a result of stress or depression, which can lead to other mortality-increasing behaviors, such as drug use.

They note that pollution in the atmosphere normally increases when the economy is on the rise and reduces during a recession, which could explain the link between mortality reduction and economic downturn.

“Other potential causes for the decrease of mortality risk during recessions could be changes in levels of stress and risk of injury in the working environment,” adds Tapia.

“During economic expansions, work is done at a faster pace, more employees are commuting, workers have less average sleep, and so on – all of which can be linked to higher risk of heart attacks, vehicle crashes, industrial injuries and enhanced circulation of germs. All of this reverses in recessions.”

But recessions may not be all good for our health. Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting recessions during mid-life may increase the risk of cognitive decline later in life.