NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Economic downturns may not be good for your bottom line but they might be a boon to your health, according to a study on health trends during the 20 years around the Great Depression.
Researchers from the University of Michigan found U.S. life expectancy increased by 6 years between 1929 and 1932, from 57 to 63, with the increase occurring for both men and women and for whites and non-whites.
The number of deaths from disease, accidents and infant mortality during the Great Depression also fell.
"The finding is strong and counterintuitive," said researcher Jose Tapia Granados from the university's Institute for Social Research. "Most people assume that periods of high unemployment are harmful to health."
The findings, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, add to previous research showing correlations between economic woes and health improvements in various countries.
This study, which covered the period from 1920 to 1940, found the health of the population generally improved during the four years of the Great Depression and during recessions in 1921 and 1938.
But mortality increased and life expectancy declined during periods of strong economic expansion, such as 1923, 1926, 1929, and 1936-1937.
The study did not look at the reasons why this was the case but Tapia Granados suggested that it may be because times of economic expansion have been linked to increases in smoking and drinking, as well as less sleep and more stress.
"During expansions, firms are very busy, and they typically demand a lot of effort from employees, who are required to work a lot of overtime, and to work at a fast pace. This can create stress, which is associated with more drinking and smoking," he said in a statement.
Also as the economy picks up, so does road traffic which also means more traffic deaths and fatal workplace injuries show a similar increase as companies take on more inexperienced workers during boom times.
Increased industrial production and road traffic also create more air pollution, Tapia Granados said, with studies showing that deaths from heart disease tend to spike on days marked by heavy air pollution.
The researchers found that deaths from five of the six top U.S. killers remained stable or decreased during the Depression with the one exception being death from suicide.
Tapia Granados said during recessions there was less work to do, so employees can work at a slower pace.
"There is more time to sleep, and because people have less money, they are less likely to spend as much on alcohol and tobacco," he said.
(Reporting by Amy Norton from Reuters Health, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)