Could the recession jumpstart your health?

With the recent economic downturn, people have looked to the past -- specifically the Great Depression -- for clues as to how things may go from bad to worse and back again. One thing many expected to find was a decline in overall health and climbing mortality rate during those years. As it turns out, the opposite was true. A look back at the Great Depression shows that during times of economic turmoil, the mortality rate has actually decreased. What does this tell us about health and wellness? For starters, it shows the importance of lifestyle in maintaining health and increasing longevity.

The study of Depression Era health reveals that although the nation's unemployment rate rose to over 22%, and despite economic activity dropping by 14%, the average life expectancy increased by 8.8 years. The nation saw a decrease in death caused by cardiovascular and renal diseases, cancer, influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and motor vehicle accidents - all comprising the list of most common causes of death during the era. In fact, the only cause of death that increased during The Depression was suicide.

Researchers believe that lifestyle factors were a likely cause of the change in the mortality rate. Given the economic conditions, people had less money to spend on alcohol and cigarettes, both of which contribute to a decline in health. People were also more likely to cut down on their driving to conserve on gas expenses, which lead to a decrease in motor accidents.

Life is obviously very different now than it was during the Great Depression, so we may not want to extrapolate the Depression data to predict a decrease in mortality during today's recession. However, another study recently published in Journal Watch Women's Health supports the idea that lifestyle changes have a significant effect on the mortality rate.

The article highlights four specific lifestyle factors that seem to have the biggest impact on your overall health and lifespan: your weight, whether or not you smoke, your exercise habits, and what you eat. These four factors are so influential that those who performed poorly in all of them (overweight smokers with poor exercise habits and poor diets) were seven times more likely to die from cardiovascular diseases, more than twice as likely to die from cancer, and more than three times more likely to die prematurely in general.

So what can we learn from these two studies? First, we need to remember that a downturn in the economy needn't mean a decrease in overall health. It may be tempting to hit the local McDonald's instead of cooking at home, or to buy more prepared and junk food because they seem to be bargains, but you can easily make affordable, healthy meals at home with a little bit of planning. Bringing leftovers to work the next day both stretches your food dollar, and decreases the likelihood of unhealthy lunch choices. Use the recession as an opportunity to ditch expensive bad habits, like smoking cigarettes, and try to add some physical activity to your daily routine. If you can't afford the monthly gym fee, take to the streets. Even something as simple as a nightly walk around the neighborhood can be beneficial to your overall health.

One place you don't want to cut corners, even in a recession, is your health. Don't hesitate to visit the doctor if you are feeling sick, and don't avoid taking needed medication just to cut your household spending. The key to good health and avoiding serious illness or death is the combination of lifestyle and medicine.

And remember -- the only cause of death that went up during the recession was suicide, so keep an eye on your mental health. If bad financial times are affecting your mental health in a negative way, speak to a medical professional.

While we may not be able to accurately predict the health trends of this recession based on those of the Depression, it is important to take the applicable lessons from the past, along with the research of today, and apply them to our daily lives.

Dr. Kronhaus hosts Good Day Health, a nationally syndicated weekend radio show heard on more than 150 stations across the country, and is featured Monday - Friday in the "Daily Dose" segment on Doug Stephan's Good Day, heard on more than 300 stations in morning drive. You can sign up for his free e-newsletter here.
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