Great Depression Had Little Effect on Death Rates

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There's this somewhat counter-intuitive idea that economic downturns are good for your health. You might expect the privation and malnutrition inherent in such times would take a toll. But during the Great Depression, mortality rates fell. And since that time, the idea that recessions are a net-positive for health has only grown.

But a new study in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health questions that idea. The researchers examined mortality rates from 114 U.S. cities in 36 states between 1929 and 1937 along with data on bank suspensions, which were used as an indicator of the impact of the financial crisis in the individual states.

They found declines in deaths due to pneumonia, flu and tuberculosis and increases in deaths from heart disease, cancer and diabetes. But none of those causes of death were associated with bank suspensions, and only the increase in deaths from heart disease could plausibly relate to the economic depression, the scientists write.

Two causes of death did correlate with the pattern of bank suspensions: suicide rates rose but motor vehicle accidents declined, so much so that they outweighed the increase in suicides.

But there was more going on in the 1930s than just and economic downturn. The 20th century was a period of great change, particularly in terms of sanitation and health care, two factors that could account for much of the decrease in mortality during the Great Depression. In addition, the New Deal---the economic programs instituted between 1933 and 1936 to respond to the crisis---and Prohibition may have also had positive effects on health.

"Our study provides evidence that even major depressions do not imply mortality crises," says study lead author David Stuckler, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. "Whether health improves or worsens during hard times depends mainly on how governments choose to respond."

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