Recessions used to make people live longer. Not anymore.

August 13, 2013
(Flickr user Cavin/CC license) (Flickr user Cavin/CC license)

It's one of the weirdest findings in economics: Recessions -- horrible as they are -- lead to longer life expectancy. Between 1972 and 1991, a 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate cut total mortality by 0.5 percent -- mainly because there were fewer traffic accidents and fewer heart attacks. If you don’t have a stressful job, you are less likely to keel over because of it, or to crash while navigating rush-hour traffic driving back from it.

But that might be changing. A new working paper by the University of Virginia's Christopher Ruhm finds that the odd relationship between recessions and mortality has disappeared in recent years.

The reason is interesting: Recessions still reduce deaths due to heart attacks and traffic accidents. But they increase deaths due to cancer and "accidental poisoning." The cancer finding, Ruhm writes, likely reflects "the increasing importance of financial resources used to purchase sophisticated (and expensive) treatments that have become available in recent years," while the accidental poisoning finding "reflects the unintended  consequences of illicit or prescribed use of opioids used to treat mental health problems, which become more prevalent during economic downturns."

There's been little change in deaths from falls, drowning or fires.

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