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Bad economy, better health?
A new look at the Roaring '20s and the Great Depression shows that good economic times have bad side effects.
T

he recession may be hurting your bank account, said Karen Kaplan in the Los Angeles Times, but it’s probably not hurting your health. On the contrary, a new study from University of Michigan researchers found a strong “link between a bad economy and good health.” The study’s authors, drawing from public-health and economic data from 1920 to 1940, show that life expectancy grew as GDP shrank, especially during the Great Depression.

That seems pretty counterintuitive, said Cassandra Willyard in Science, since the Great Depression usually “conjures up images of wan, rail-thin men waiting in bread lines.” But the researchers have a plausible explanation: Boom times bring “more smoking and drinking, less sleep, and more work-related stress” and injury, while “recessions tend to bring people together,” boosting well-being. And they predict that “the trend may still hold true today.”

Not everyone thinks better health will be “a silver lining to today’s financial crisis,” said Jessica Marshall in Discovery News. Other researchers posit that the rise in mortality rates during economic recoveries may be a lagging effect of the preceding slump—perhaps the remaining workers are overworked until business picks up. The only certainty is that we won’t know how our health fared in today’s Great Recession until the recession is long over.

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