Studies in the U.S. and Europe over the years have found that when unemployment is high, people cook at home, have less money to buy cigarettes or junk food and thus become healthier -- but there are signs the most recent recession may have been different.
Being out of work can be advantageous for people's physical health. Unemployed people have more time to exercise and cook at home, and less money to buy cigarettes or junk food. Studies in the United States and Europe over the years have found that when unemployment is high, people lose weight and become healthier and overall mortality rates drop. Yet there are signs that the most recent recession might have been different.
In recent years, unemployment has resulted in an increase in body weight and a substantial decline in physical activity, one new study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, concluded. Another found a significant increase in death by overdosing on painkillers, tied to treating mental health conditions associated with unemployment. Economists say the differences were largely because the recession's effects have been so long-lasting and because job losses were particularly heavy in physical labor.
So the decline of work, a defining economic challenge of our time, could have consequences far beyond the job market, affecting health care expenses and mortality rates. "There will be indirect costs if people are unemployed for a long time," said Gregory Colman, an economist at Pace University and an author of the weight gain study. "The difficulties of unemployment don't disappear automatically once you regain employment. The long-term effects of obesity stick with us."
Those who are currently unemployed say it has had negative effects on their health. In a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll of nonworking adults aged 25 to 54 in the United States, conducted last month, people were more likely than not to say that unemployment had been bad for their physical health, mental health and sleep.
They also do not seem to be using their free time to exercise more. About a third each said they exercised more than, less than and the same amount as when they were employed. But 57 percent said they spent more time doing sedentary activities like reading, watching TV and surfing the Web. Fifteen percent said they spent less time doing those things.
There are several characteristics of the recent downturn that could negatively affect physical health, say economists who study the issue. Many of the jobs lost were in manual labor like construction, so even if unemployed people exercised more, they were not as physically active as they had been at work, said Colman, who did the study with Dhaval Dave of Bentley University.
Because the recovery has not brought significant numbers of new jobs, people may have settled into less healthy behaviors because they assume they will not work again soon, they found.
Unlike other studies on health and unemployment, this one used longitudinal data, tracking the same people over time. They found that a small increase in exercise, a moderate decrease in smoking and a decline in the purchasing of fast food were offset by a substantial decline in total physical activity. The net result was slight weight gain.
There was significant variation within the data. For example, though smoking decreased overall, it increased for some people, probably because of the stress of unemployment or because many workplaces ban smoking, so people do it more when they are home, they said.
And although fast food consumption declined, it did not necessarily mean people were eating better. People spend more time cooking when the unemployment rate is high, according to data from the American Time Use Survey, but they might also resort to less-balanced diets or more cheap, sugary snacks.
Unemployed people are also more likely to delay going to the doctor, the economists found.
The past research of Christopher Ruhm, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Virginia, showed that a weak economy and unemployment led to healthier lifestyles. In a 2000 study of all 50 states over 20 years, he found that a 1 percent rise in unemployment led to a 0.5 percent decline in the death rate.
In September, however, he published a new study titled "Recessions, Healthy No More?" He found that higher incomes and hours at work protect against health problems. He also found a significant increase in death by overdosing on painkillers. Mental health has always been worse during economic downturns, but the most recent one coincided with easier access to opioid painkillers that are used to treat certain mental health problems, he said.
The diminished proportion of people in the labor force does not seem to be changing, even as employers begin to add jobs and raise wages. That could affect not just people's livelihoods, but also the health and length of their lives.
© 2014 New York Times News Service