Business Forum: As economy suffers, life expectancy rises
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The age-adjusted death rate in the U.S. declined by 2 percent from 2007 to 2010, according to preliminary data from the Centers 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.
In contrast, from 2004 to 2007, when the economy was much stronger, life expectancy rose by only 0.4 year.
Life expectancy appears to have risen more in the states with relatively large increases in unemployment.
In Michigan and Illinois, for example, where joblessness rose much more than in North Dakota or Iowa, age-adjusted death rates have had a steeper decline since 2007. (In the states with the smallest increase in unemployment, the death rates have perversely risen.)
These cross-state data are consistent with historical patterns that economists Douglas Miller, Marianne Page, Ann Stevens and Mateusz Filipski have found.
Their research shows that a 1-percentage-point increase in a state's unemployment rate is associated with a 0.5 percent reduction in the state's mortality rate.
During the Great Depression, too, life expectancy rose, according to research by Jose Tapia Granados and Ana Diez Roux of the University of Michigan.
As they conclude, "The evolution of population health during the years 1920-1940 confirms the counter-intuitive hypothesis that, as in other historical periods and market economies, population health tends to evolve better during recessions than in expansions."
How could this be? Christopher Ruhm, an economist at the University of Virginia, has explored the reasons.
It appears that while suicide rates rise during downturns, other types of fatalities, such as from motor-vehicle accidents, fall more.
The surprising findings apply even to heart attacks. In a study titled "A Healthy Economy Can Break Your Heart," Mr. Ruhm finds that higher unemployment reduces deaths from heart attacks, perhaps because when there is less economic activity, hazards such as air pollution and traffic congestion are less severe.
First Published 2012-03-02 23:21:47