Wednesday 21 March 2018

Tom Molloy: Why this recession may be helping you to live a longer and healthier life

A visit to Dublin's zoo last weekend revealed that one of our greatest national institutions is as busy as ever, but most families are opting to bring picnics these days rather than eat the fatty, overpriced food on offer.

The good news is families at the zoo are part of a global trend that offers some unexpected and encouraging news amid all recession-induced gloom.

That trend is that deep economic declines, such as the one we are experiencing in Ireland, probably lengthen life expectancy.

Bloomberg reported last week that every percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate, leads the US mortality rate to drop by 0.3 percentage point. In other words, and although it runs counter to our intuition, recessions may be bad for our wallets but good for our health.

Part of the reason, and we have definitely seen this here, is that there are fewer road accidents because the roads are emptier. From 2002 to 2007, the number of Americans dying in motor-vehicle accidents was roughly constant, at about 42,000 or so per year.

By 2011, that figure had dropped by almost a quarter, to 32,367 – the lowest since 1949, when the US population was half what it is now.

We have seen an even more dramatic drop here, where there was a 56pc decrease in road deaths between 2007 and the end of 2011 and record reductions in the rest of the European Union as well.

Naturally, the various quangos have been queueing up to claim credit, but common sense suggests the biggest single factor has been the recession.

While this helps to explain decreasing mortality rates in recessions, Bloomberg notes that traffic accidents are only a small part of the equation.

The rest of the story seems to be explained by evidence found in three recent studies. One of these studies came from Iceland, which found that Icelanders abandoned various unhealthy behaviours following the recession there.

Among working-age people, for example, the share who smoked fell to 19pc, from 23pc before the crisis. The proportion who consumed at least five alcoholic drinks in a day at least once a month declined to 17pc, from 20pc.

The share eating fast food weekly fell to 25pc in 2009, from 32pc in 2007, and the figure for those practising indoor tanning declined to 13pc from 17pc. Meanwhile, the proportion of people getting adequate sleep rose to 76pc, from 72pc.

Once again, the figures from the National Office of Tobacco Control show a similar trend here. Smoking rates have declined across all age groups over the past two years with the exception of the 25-34 group where rates remained level.

The 35-44 age group, which is also perhaps the worst hit by the recession, displayed the largest decline in smoking rates with a decrease of 3.6pc, while the under-18 grouping showed a decline of 2.4pc.

The same trend can be observed with drinking. Figures from the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland published in March show the average adult drank 11.7 litres of pure alcohol in 2012 which is the equivalent of 411.3 pints of beer with 5pc alcohol content.

That's a lot but it is a pretty steep decline from the peak of 2001 when the average adult consumed the equivalent of 508 pints a year or nearly 100 pints more than we do today.

Giving further support to the theory is the fact that the most dramatic fall came between 2008 and 2009 when consumption fell from 433 pints a year to 392, which was the lowest this century.

A second study quoted by Bloomberg focused on air pollution, specifically carbon monoxide, particulate matter and ozone.

Higher concentrations of carbon monoxide are connected with higher mortality rates. A one-standard-deviation increase in carbon monoxide raises the mortality rate by 2pc.

It is virtually impossible to get solid information (as opposed to platitudes) from the Environmental Protection Agency's reports but the latest evidence is that Ireland is on track to meet its commitment under the Kyoto Protocol.

This is in marked contrast to the projection in Ireland's 2007 National Climate Change Strategy which forecast that we would be way off target. The EPA attributes this almost entirely to the recession.

The third study quoted by Bloomberg found that deaths among the elderly decline disproportionately during a recession, and that the quality of nursing-home staff may be an important reason.

Staffing ratios in nursing homes tend to be higher when the overall labour market weakens, because more people are willing to work in the facilities.

The disgraceful reluctance of the Department of Health to publish data on care for the elderly means that we simply don't know what is happening here when it comes to the elderly but the various surveys are a reminder perhaps that every cloud has a silver lining.

Irish Independent

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