Scientists set out to study the seemingly contradictory finding that being out of a job increases your risk of death and yet an economic slowdown is good for health.
Researchers from Drexel University and the University of Michigan in the US found that losing your job was associated with a 73 per cent increase in the probability of death – the equivalent of adding 10 years to a person’s age.
Yet they also discovered that each percentage-point increase in the national unemployment rate reduces the risk of death by approximately nine per cent, which is about the equivalent of making a person one year younger.
The results, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, concluded that the increased risk affects only the minority of people who are unemployed and is outweighed by health-promoting effects of an economic slowdown that affect the entire population, such as a drop in traffic fatalities and reduced atmospheric pollution.
Dr José Tapia, an economist and population health researcher in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, said: “Most people believe that being unemployed is a bad thing.
“But what many people don’t realise is economic expansion, which usually reduces joblessness, also has effects that are harmful for society at large.”
The researchers used a nationally representative panel of individuals across the US and studied both processes concurrently.
They found, for the first time in the same dataset, these two trends that had previously been seen as inconsistent.
Dr Tapia added: “The increase in the risk of death associated with being unemployed is very strong. However, 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 research did not cover the potential causes for the results but the authors suggest that the increase in the risk of death associated with joblessness may be related to stress and depression, which often lead to substance abuse and harmful behaviours.
Atmospheric pollution, which strongly increases in economic upturns and diminishes in recessions, may be one of several mechanisms explaining why population mortality tends to decrease in downturns.
Dr Tapia said: “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.
“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.”