Yet, when looking at mortality data for the entire United States, a paradox emerges: despite the harmful aspects for workers, overall death rates fall and
people live longer during recessions. In a study examining mortality between 1900 and 1996, death
rates rise and fall with economic growth so that the fewest deaths occur during the sharpest downturns. By one estimate a one percent decrease in
employment positively correlates with a decrease of 0.54% in the mortality rate: more
than 13,000 averted deaths per year. Economist Tyler Cowen published an essay in the New York Times during the deepest point of the Great
Recession that exalted how, counterintuitively, the recession would improve quality of life.
One explanation for this trend relies on the changing behavioral patterns as the economy fluctuates. Christopher Ruhm, professor of Public Policy and
Economics at the University of Virginia, has demonstrated that during economic expansions use of tobacco
and alcohol as well as obesity increase while exercise decreases. Additionally, boom periods are accompanied by reduced nightly sleep. Between tightening budgets and less busy schedules, recessions free people to partake in
healthy activities that, in turn, decrease mortality.
As economic activity slows in recessions, according to another theory, transportation and production slow as well. Changes in economic output produce swings
in the total level of particulate air pollution and, while this has little impact on adults, the increased air quality during recessions notably improves infant mortality rates. Deaths from auto vehicle accidents follow the same trend of
Neither of these explains how during recessions individuals are harmed but the populace prospers. In order to reconcile these trends, a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research looks at cause of death and
unemployment from 1978 to 2006 broken down by demographics. For working-age adults, changes in vehicle accidents account for almost all of the changes in
death rates. However, working-age adults and vehicle accidents do not power this national trend: they barely make up 10 percent of the change. Elderly Americans,
those not themselves working, drive the decreased mortality during recessions as 70 percent of averted deaths come from those over 70.
Therefore, while grandma living longer causes the trend seen across the population, changes in her interactions with people in the workforce must explain
why she lives longer in the first place. One such regular interaction takes place for the elderly living in nursing homes. For Americans over 65, the death
rate for those in nursing homes drastically decreases during recessions while death rate slightly increases for those not in nursing care. Enough deaths
are averted in nursing homes to compromise the entire effect among those over 65. Plus, in comparison between states, those with the greatest percentage of
elderly living in nursing care saw the most substantial decrease in the death rate.