As if we don't have enough to worry about — given daily political drama, volatile stock markets and North Korean nuclear threats — a new study suggests that living through such times of instability and societal upheaval can greatly worsen personal health.
Using large data sets gathered before and after the Great Recession, researchers found significantly higher blood pressure and blood sugar levels in American adults.
“We found some pretty big effects, differences in blood pressure that would not be something a doctor would sneeze at,” said Teresa Seeman, a veteran epidemiologist at the University of California at Los Angeles and the study's lead author. “It does make you think about the times we live in now. Things are not exactly the most stable they've been. And it will be interesting to see what the effect will be of all the upheaval we're going through now.”
The study, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that those hardest hit by the trauma of the recession showed the greatest signs of worse health. Those included pre-retirement adults younger than 65, who would have been most worried about losing their jobs, and older homeowners older than 65, who were most likely see their nest eggs shrink and home values plummet.
Adults already on blood pressure medication also appeared to take a bigger hit to their health, the study found. “It appeared that because their health was already compromised, they were more biologically vulnerable to the effects of stress,” Seeman said.
Eileen Crimmins, a demographer at the University of Southern California who was not involved in the study, said that its conclusions linking the recession's stresses to health declines appeared credible. “If you're working with that much data and you get that much change, there's something there in terms of causation,” Crimmins said. “The difficulty is often is getting the causation. But the more data you have about the before, the more certain you are about what caused the after.”
The researchers drew on unusually rich data collected every two years in a federally funded survey called the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, originally designed to study cardiovascular disease. And while these researchers focused on the effects of economic upheaval, other research in recent years has examined the health effects of political upheaval — such as a decline in life expectancy during the collapse the Soviet Union.
“Good health doesn't start in hospitals and clinics; it starts in our homes and neighborhoods, in the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the safety of our streets,” concluded a 2013 book on the health effects of political policy called “The Body Economic,” by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu. “Indeed, the top predictor of your life expectancy is your Zip code. That's because much of what keeps us healthy has to do with our social environment.”
In fact, the party and person who occupy the White House often have a powerful effect on societal health, said Javier Rodríguez, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate University who studies the intersection of politics and health. Recent studies have suggested that the party in power can have a noticeable impact not just on health but also on income and wealth inequality and mortality.
In 2013, Rodríguez found that U.S. infant mortality consistently worsens during Republican presidential administrations, compared with infant mortality during Democratic presidencies. His study used data across nine presidencies, from 1965 to 2010, and he concluded that the higher death rates under Republicans were probably because of policies that worsened health inequalities.
Given the policies enacted so far by President Trump, Rodríguez said Monday, the trend is likely to continue.
“Weakening the welfare system and redirecting policy that would increase even further income and wealth inequality will add to the trend detected in my research,” he said via email. In coming years, he added, researchers looking back at the current period will be particularly interested in studying the health effects on minorities, immigrants and the poor.
Based on past studies assessing the health effects of particular events or policies, it often takes a year for such consequences to begin showing up in the data.
“If this is so,” Rodríguez pointed out, “we should begin to detect the effects of Trump’s administration policies and interventions soon.”