Why do more people die when the economy gets better?

at 03:20 PM ET, 04/10/2012

Economists have puzzled for years over why the mortality rate rises when the economy improves. Perhaps there’s more job-related stress when employment goes up, resulting in less healthy behavior and less time for exercise. Or maybe more folks are dying in auto accidents as they drive to work.
(M. Spencer Green/Associated Press)

But researchers at Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research believe there’s another explanation. In a new paper, researchers argue that economic boom times create a scarcity of caregivers in nursing homes, raising the mortality rate through a disproportionately high numbers of deaths among the elderly.

The Center for Retirement Research points out that when employment goes up, mortality increases disproportionately among the elderly—who are far less likely to be employed or drive long distances—and among older women, in particular. “Deaths among people ages 65 and older accounted for 75 percent of the 6,700 additional deaths,” the paper points out. “Notably, women over 65 alone accounted for 55 percent of the additional deaths.”

More specifically, when employment rises, there’s a particularly large spike in deaths that take place in nursing homes, where elderly women (who tend to outlive their male partners) are likely to reside.
So what’s the relationship between the employment rate and nursing home deaths? The Center for Retirement Research explains that a strong job market creates “greater scarcity in front-line caregivers in nursing homes, which may cause more deaths among the elderly.” When the overall unemployment rate goes down, for instance, employment declines are particularly noticeable among certified aides and nurses in these facilities. Ultimately, researchers conclude that it’s important to address such employment shortages, which may put the elderly’s lives in danger.

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