Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Can a troubled economy actually improve public health?

AS MORE people watch their home equity erode, put off retirement because their nest eggs are taking a dive, and bike or bus to work to save gas money, many are thanking their lucky stars that they still have a job to commute to.

But strange as it may seem, bad times can also be good for health. Forget individual health for a minute. This is about the macro picture, the health of entire societies. And there statistics show that as economics worsen, traffic accidents go down, as do industrial accidents, obesity, alcohol consumption and smoking. Population-wide, even deaths from heart disease go down during recessions.

"Deaths go down when unemployment goes up," says Christopher J. Ruhm, professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who for the last few years has been publishing counterintuitive and controversial papers on the economy and health. Put total mortality numbers on a spreadsheet, he's found, and the population's physical well-being improves as just about every measure of economic health dips.

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