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.