Recession raised U.S. blood pressure

The Washington Post
Monday, March 12, 2018

As if we don’t have enough to worry about – given daily political drama, volatile stock markets and North Korean nuclear threats – a new study suggests that living through such times of instability and societal upheaval can greatly worsen personal health.

Using large data sets gathered before and after the 2008-2010 Great Recession, researchers found significantly higher blood pressure and blood sugar levels in American adults.

“We found some pretty big effects, differences in blood pressure that would not be something a doctor would sneeze at,” said Teresa Seeman, a veteran epidemiologist at the University of California at Los Angeles and the study’s lead author. “It does make you think about the times we live in now. Things are not exactly the most stable they’ve been. And it will be interesting to see what the effect will be of all the upheaval we’re going through now.”

The study, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that those hardest hit by the trauma of the recession showed the greatest signs of worse health. Those included pre-retirement adults under 65, who would have been most worried about losing their jobs, and older homeowners over 65, who were most likely see their nest eggs shrink and home values plummet.

Adults already on blood pressure medication also appeared to take a bigger hit to their health, the study found. “It appeared that because their health was already compromised, they were more biologically vulnerable to the effects of stress,” Seeman said.

Eileen Crimmins, a demographer at University of Southern California who was not involved in the study, said its conclusions linking the recession’s stresses to health declines appeared credible. “If you’re working with that much data and you get that much change, there’s something there in terms of causation,” she said. “The difficulty is often is getting the causation. But the more data you have about ‘the before,’ the more certain you are about what caused ‘the after.’“

The researchers drew on unusually rich data collected every two years to study cardiovascular disease. And while they focused on the effects of economic upheaval, other research in recent years has examined the health effects of political upheaval – such as a decline in life expectancy during the collapse the Soviet Union.

“Good health doesn’t start in hospitals and clinics; it starts in our homes and neighborhoods, in the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the safety of our streets,” concluded a 2013 book on the health effects of political policy called “The Body Economic.” “Indeed, the top predictor of your life expectancy is your Zip code. That’s because much of what keeps us healthy has to do with our social environment.”