Study: Boom times linked to deaths in aging adults
Kim Painter, Special for USA TODAY 3:53 p.m. EDT October 9, 2013
Study raises question: Do middle-aged and older adults overindulge in good times?
Let the bad times roll? Researchers have long known that economic upturns are associated with surprising rises in death rates. Now, they have new evidence that the link exists not just for working-aged adults but for retirees too.
The new multinational study, published this week inThe Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, builds on research that has repeatedly shown that as unemployment eases and economies expand, people die in greater numbers – at least over the short term. That’s despite the fact that, in the long run, “wealth creates health,” write the researchers, led by Herbert Rolden of the Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing in the Netherlands.
They looked at trends in 19 developed countries, including the United States, between 1950 and 2008. For every one percentage point increase in gross domestic product (GDP), they found death rates rose by 0.36% among men ages 70 to 74 and by 0.38% among men ages 40 to 44. The effect on women in those age groups was similar but smaller.
Longstanding theories are that work-related stress and traffic accidents – from increases in boom-time commuting – contribute to the death spike. Overindulgence in food and drink and under-indulgence in exercise among busy workers also might play roles.
But after looking at their latest findings, Rolden and colleagues are asking: Why would older people, who are mostly retired, suffer in good times, too?
One theory: Younger relatives and friends are busier and have less time to care for the aging. Another: air pollution from increased traffic takes a toll on older hearts and lungs. It’s also possible, the researchers say, that good times put older folks in the same overindulging mood that leads to trouble for younger people. In other words, a few extra martinis and desserts with those five-o’clock dinner specials might make the difference.
“Those are certainly all plausible explanations,” says Christopher Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia who has studied the same links in the United States. He was not involved in the new study. He says it was limited because it did not look at a broader range of ages, but that his own work shows effects of similar magnitude among various age groups.
In his studies, a 1 percentage point rise in the U.S. unemployment rate is associated with about 11,000 fewer deaths, out of roughly 2.4 million deaths, in a year.
A booming economy is not nearly as big a threat to survival as, say, smoking, but it is “a non-trivial” factor, Ruhm says. He adds that he has preliminary data suggesting the link may be weakening in the United States. Heart attacks and traffic accidents still seem to spike in good times, he says, but poisoning and cancer deaths now appear to fall. He’s looking into possible explanations
It should be noted that these studies show an association between economic upswings and deaths: They do not prove a cause and effect relationship. It’s also important to note that suicides rise in bad times: One recent study estimated that an extra 5,000 people, mostly men, killed themselves in 54 countries affected by the 2008 economic collapse.
Source: USA Today (Click here to read original story).