Researcher - Lean economic times may improve health

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

BOSTON -- The sickly economy may have a silver lining: Research shows tough times are good for your health.

In a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass., economist Christopher J. Ruhm concluded that when jobs are scarce, both unemployed workers and those who keep their jobs -- but perhaps with less work to do -- behave in a healthier manner.

They're more likely to exercise, less likely to pig out at restaurants or skip doctors' appointments, he concluded. Also, it's the heaviest smokers and most obese who change their behavior during a slump.

Ruhm's idea flies in the face of conventional wisdom, including work by Johns Hopkins University researcher M. Harvey Brenner, who suggested the downturns of the early 1970s and 1980s harmed health.

But Ruhm, a researcher at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, worked with data from 1972 to 2000 and said his numbers suggest the reverse of Brenner's conclusions, with two big caveats.

First, he readily admits mental health does not necessarily fit the same pattern. And the emphasis of the study is "temporary" economic downturns. In the long run, he says, economic growth is indisputably good for health.

But long-term growth comes from technology, and technology doesn't develop at a regular pace.

Small changes

In the short term, technology may not improve productivity fast enough, so people make up the difference by working longer, more stressful hours. When work is more pressing, and even more rewarding, there's an increase in the "opportunity cost" of doing anything else -- including exercising and taking the time to cook a healthy meal.

Admittedly, the data show small changes, Ruhm said. He concluded an increase of 1 percent in a state unemployment rate reduces smoking, obesity and physical inactivity rates by 0.6 percent, 0.3 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively.

Such studies demonstrate the growing interest of economists in questions of whether people behave rationally when it comes to their well-being.

But nobody has found much success understanding the relationship between the health of the economy and the health of individuals.

That's because it's virtually impossible to isolate so many causes from so many effects. Laid off workers, for instance, may lose their insurance but may gorge on medical care just before it expires. Prosperous workers have more options for a healthier lifestyle, such as gym memberships, but also more temptations -- vacations that lead to sunburn, for example.

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