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Does an Economic Downturn Lead to an Increasing Mortality Rate?

January 07, 2016| By Tanya van Niekerk | Life | English

A direct link between the average mortality rate and personal wealth and socio-economic class should come as no surprise. Wealthier people in any population have access to the best healthcare, nutrition, education and living conditions, and so will live longer.

A longitudinal study of workers in England and Wales showed that people in what were classified as routine and semi-routine jobs in 2006 could expect an average life expectancy of 75 years, compared to just 70 years in 1986. Meanwhile, the life expectancy of people in managerial and professional jobs rose from 75 years to around 80 years.1

This gap of five years between the highest and lowest occupation groups has remained relatively stable over the 20-year study period. A similar picture emerges from the U.S. where “expected life remaining” at age 25 rose by around five years from 1996 to 2006.2 In this study education level is a proxy for socio-economic class, and it is clear that the life expectancy gap between the lower and higher groups is widening.

South African data on mortality rates by income level highlights the huge differences where those in the lowest income class are subject to between 7 and 10 times worse mortality than those in the highest income levels.

However, the correlation between the economic cycles of a country and national mortality is less well understood. What happens to mortality on a macro level? Specifically, what is the correlation between the life expectancy and a country’s wealth when wealth is measured as income per person?

In general we may conclude that the populations of most developed and developing nations enjoy improved health and increasing wealth over time. Following this logic and assuming there is some positive correlation between wealth and longevity, a recession would then worsen mortality rates particularly if people lose their jobs as a result of the recession.

However, data charting the percentage change in per capita GDP and life expectancy in the U.S. for the years 1910 to 2012 reveals a clear trend of increasing life expectancy by negative change in GDP. Counter-intuitively it seems mortality may actually fall during economic downturns.

A correlation definitely exists between macro-economic activity and total mortality for all causes.Data from 23 OECD countries highlights this effect. Mortality decreases by 0.4% for each 1% increase in unemployment, mainly driven by a reduction in vehicle accident deaths offset by an increase in deaths by suicide and homicide.Similar patterns are seen in U.S. data where mortality due to heart disease, liver disease, influenza and pneumonia all decrease during economic downturns.5

A study from 1980 to 1997 in Spain shows that the effect of unemployment is negative on general mortality, sex-specific mortality and mortality for major causes of death. In other words, the death rate is positively correlated with the overall state of the economy and increases when joblessness diminishes during economic expansion.6

So, what happened after the 2008 recession? European data shows no major change from past trends in all-cause mortality rates since the short-term mortality changes were driven mainly by an increase in suicides and a decline in road accident deaths. A decline in suicide rates in the years prior to the recession was followed by a 5% increase in 2009. These findings are consistent with evidence from countries including the U.S.7

A clear correlation exists between economic downturn and decreased mortality – even if this seems counterintuitive. While it is easy to explain a decrease in accidental deaths, the influence of economics on natural deaths is more of a mystery. 

  1. ONS (2011). Trends in life expectancy by the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification 1982–2006.
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2012). Health, United States, 2011.
  3. Ruhm C.J. (2005). “Commentary: Mortality increases during economic upturns. International Journal of Epidemiology, 34(6), 1206-1211.
  4. Gerdtham, U.G., & Ruhm, C.J. (2006). Deaths rise in good economic times: evidence from the OECD. Economics & Human Biology, 4(3), 298-316.
  5. Ruhm, C.J. (2000). Are recessions good for your health? The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115(2), 617-650.
  6. Granados, J.A.T. (2005). Recessions and mortality in Spain, 1980–1997. European Journal of Population/Revue Européenne de Démographie, 21(4), 393-422.
  7. Stuckler, D., Basu, S., Suhrcke, M., Coutts, A., & McKee, M. (2011). Effects of the 2008 recession on health: a first look at European data. The Lancet, 378(9786), 124-125.


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