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​Here's one upside to an economic downturn

While no one likes living through an economic slump, recessions seem to have a silver lining: better health.

Mortality appears to improve during times of economic hardship, according to a new working paper from Christopher Ruhm, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia. Published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the study found that downturns apparently "lead to improvements in physical health."

"There is considerable evidence that harmful behaviors -- like heavy drinking and smoking -- decrease in bad economic times, whereas health-enhancing activities such as exercise and social interactions increase," Ruhm wrote.

It may seem counterintuitive that health outcomes would improve under such trying circumstances, but Ruhm isn't the first to make the connection. Researchers at Princeton University found that Americans' health actually improved during the Great Depression, with the notable exception of suicide, which did increase from 1930 to 1933.

In good times, people tend to engage in risky behavior, such as drinking or smoking, but may be forced to cut back when they tighten their belts during tough times. But the effects on health seem to be growing stronger during recent decades, Ruhm noted.

"What is new is evidence that the severe national recessions occurring at the beginning of the 1980s and the end of the first decade of the 21st century had a protective effect on total mortality that was around twice as large as that predicted by the higher unemployment rates occurring during such periods alone," he wrote.

Still, in some cases an economic downturn does result in poorer physical health and an increase in deaths. One such example is the breakup of the Soviet Union, which Ruhm notes had "enormous negative effects on Russian life expectancy." That was partly due to the end of state-controlled alcohol prices, which plummeted as the Soviet Union dissolved. That led to a hike in alcohol-related deaths and health issues.

"These caveats notwithstanding," noted Ruhm, "this analysis, when combined with previous related research, provides reasonably strong evidence that the protective effect of economic downturns on physical health is generally not restricted to 'typical' business cycle fluctuations, but also extends to crisis periods, at least when the latter do not lead to a the collapse of the health infrastructure or large changes in relative prices."

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