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Great Recession took a toll on Americans’ health, study finds

Middle-aged and older adults experienced higher-than-expected increases in blood pressure and blood glucose levels in the aftermath of the recession.

The deleterious effects were particularly strong among older adults who were homeowners — people who were seeing the value of their homes plummet with the collapse of the housing market.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Great Recession (2007-2009) not only cost millions of Americans their homes, jobs and life savings, it also took a toll on their health, according to a study published recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Specifically, the study found that middle-aged and older adults experienced higher-than-expected increases in blood pressure and blood glucose levels in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

High blood pressure and glucose levels are associated with many major health problems, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. They are also known to be particularly responsive to stress.

Previous studies have looked at the impact of the Great Recession on Americans’ health, but with mixed results. Some reported negative health effects, while others found some health improvements during that economic downturn, which was the worse since the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

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The current study is the first one, however, to look at the subject by analyzing health measures taken at multiple points leading up to the Great Recession. That enabled researchers to calculate the expected progression of health for the study’s participants and then to see if that progression went askew in the aftermath of the recession.

Study details

For the study, a team of researchers led by epidemiologist Teresa Seeman of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) used blood pressure and glucose data collected from 4,600 middle-aged and older adults who were participating in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, an ongoing study evaluating factors that contribute to heart health. The participants ranged in age from 50 to 91 in 2008, the middle of the Great Recession.

The first blood pressure and blood glucose measurements were taken in four pre-recession “waves,” starting in 2000. A fifth wave of data was collected between 2010 and 2012, after the recession. The researchers then plotted that data to see if the progression of those measurements had taken an unexpected turn.

They found that it had, particularly for certain groups of people. The systolic blood pressure readings for people younger than 65 who were taking blood pressure medication had post-recession readings for systolic blood pressure (the “top” number) that were, on average, nearly 13 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) beyond what was predicted based on the their pre-recession health data.

That same group also experienced an average increase in blood glucose levels of almost 11 percent beyond what was expected.

Seeman and her colleagues note that adults under age 65 were more likely to be in the labor force while the recession was under way and thus worried about losing their jobs.

The Great Recession also appeared, however, to have deleterious effects on the health of people older than 65. That group saw their systolic blood pressure jump by an average of almost 8 mm Hg and their blood glucose levels by about 6 percent beyond what would have been expected. This effect was particularly strong among older adults who were homeowners — people who were seeing the value of their homes plummet with the collapse of the housing market.

The study also found that many people stopped taking their medications in the wake of the Great Recession. The use of blood pressure medications dropped by 17 percent among people 65 and older and by 6 percent among people younger than 65 after the recession began. The use of blood-glucose-lowering medications fell by 13 percent among those 65 and older and by 29 percent by those younger than 65. 

These shifts in medication use “cannot explain the worsening of the health indicators,” Seeman and her colleagues point out. But they do show, the researchers add, that the stresses of the Great Recession took their greatest health toll on a particularly vulnerable group — those with existing medical conditions.

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Limitations and implications

This study has its limitations, of course. It is an observational study, so it can demonstrate only correlations between health and the stresses of the Great Recession rather than a direct cause-and-effect relationship. In addition, the researchers took only one measurement of blood pressure and blood glucose after the recession. The study can’t tell us, therefore, if the effects are long lasting — or if they might lead to serious health outcomes, such as heart attack, stroke or death. 

Still, the study adds support to the hypothesis that the Great Recession had a damaging impact on many people’s health.

“The findings themselves underscore the fact that economic upheavals such as the [Great Recession] not only result in deleterious economic consequences that impact some population subgroups more than others but that those same population subgroups shoulder more deleterious health impacts as well,” Seeman and her colleagues conclude.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the PNAS website, but the full study is behind a paywall.