Recessions: Good for your health, bad for grandma’s

August 28, 2012

There's a long body of research finding that longevity goes up during economic downturns. Intuitively, that makes some sense: the unemployed have less disposable income to spend on cigarettes or alcohol and more time to sleep and exercise.

But what about the retirees, many of whom already have a lot of free time on their hands and could be living off a fixed income? Jason Shafrin flags new research (ungated PDF) that breaks out the impact of recessions just on the elderly. For that group, an economic downturn looks to have a negative effect:

We find that seniors on Medicare report worsening health as state unemployment rates rise. Although the unemployment rate has no significant effect on the likelihood that MCBS respondents smoke or are obese, higher state unemployment is associated with weight loss in the unhealthy range of the BMI distribution.

We also find that seniors enrolled in traditional Medicare use more of some types of healthcare during recessions; in particular, higher unemployment increases the likelihood of having an inpatient stay and the number of inpatient admissions.

Our results thus suggest that higher state unemployment rates are timed with reductions in physical and mental health and increases in mortality rates; these deteriorations in health may partially explain the increases in healthcare utilization we observe as unemployment rates rise.

The researchers also found a higher prevalence of mental health issues to be associated with economic downturns among seniors. Authors Melissa McInernety and Jennifer Mellor think a lot of this has to do with workforce supply: When economic times are rough, fewer Americans under 65 have health insurance. That's not the case for the elderly, who universally have access to Medicare. The health services workforce essentially becomes more free to deal with whatever ails the senior population, and ends up recording more health woes as a result.

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