How the Great Recession Hurt Americans' Health

As jobs evaporated, blood pressure skyrocketed.

A protestor affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement falls asleep in an armchair in Foley Square in 2011.
A protestor affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement falls asleep in an armchair in Foley Square in 2011.  ( Andrew Burton / Reuters)

A new paper confirms what many Americans likely suspected: A mass economic downturn—on the scale that occurred during the Great Recession—makes people physically sick.

Past research has been surprisingly mixed on the effect of economic downturns on physical health. A review paper published in 2016 found that though alcohol use and traffic fatalities declined during the Great Recession, overall, people had fewer babies, had worse mental health, and were more likely to kill themselves. But other papers have found that death rates actually decline during recessions, as Neal Emery wrote for The Atlantic in 2012. Cubans got healthier during the early-90s economic crisis.

These counterintuitive findings led the economist Tyler Cowen, in the New York Times in 2009, to extol economic hardship as some sort of hot new workout plan:

In the United States and other affluent countries, physical health seems to improve, on average, during a downturn. Sure, it’s stressful to miss a paycheck, but eliminating the stresses of a job may have some beneficial effects. Perhaps more important, people may take fewer car trips, thus lowering the risk of accidents, and spend less on alcohol and tobacco. They also have more time for exercise and sleep, and tend to choose home cooking over fast food.

Sure, it’s stressful to miss a paycheck ... and that stress can harm your health, according to new findings published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For the study, Teresa Seeman, an epidemiologist at UCLA, and her colleagues examined longitudinal data on 4,600 people between the ages of 45 and 84 collected between 2000 and 2012 to look for changes in their blood pressure and fasting blood-sugar levels.

They found that blood pressure increased significantly among all groups during the time period, and blood glucose did too, among certain groups. The authors speculate the reason for the spike was stress—potentially different stressors for different generations. The younger people in the cohort were either unemployed, or those still working were likely wondering how on Earth they would be able to retire. The older people may have owned their own homes and watched the housing market collapse. All of this, they found, likely drove up their stress levels, and blood pressure.

The authors also found that during the recession, many people stopped taking their medications—especially older homeowners, whose major sources of wealth were evaporating. “The evidence suggests that the stresses of the Great Recession took their greatest toll on those who are on medication,” they write—because they may not have been able to afford the drugs anymore.

These findings further confirm what other researchers have seen on a more cellular level: Economic hardship causes stress, and that stress can sneak under the skin, disrupting bodily systems. Of course, that stress can come from other sources, too—like, for example, an unusually distressing news cycle lurching from one scandal to another.

“It will be interesting to see what the effect will be of all the upheaval we’re going through now,” Seeman told The Washington Post, ominously.