Rising unemployment causes higher death rates, Yale researcher shows

In the largest ever study on mortality patterns in Europe and the United States, a Yale researcher has found a direct correlation between unemployment and mortality.
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In the largest study of its kind on mortality patterns in Europe and the United States, a Yale researcher has found a direct correlation between unemployment and mortality.

The study showed that high unemployment rates increase mortality and low unemployment decreases mortality and increases the sense of well being in a community. Findings from the three-year study, commissioned by the European Union, will be presented to select members of the European Parliament and senior officials at a European Commission press conference on May 23 in Brussels.

Economic growth is the single most important factor relating to length of life,” said principal investigator M. Harvey Brenner, visiting professor in the Global Health Division of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale School of Medicine. Brenner is also professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University and senior professor of epidemiology at Berlin University of Technology.

Employment is the essential element of social status and it establishes a person as a contributing member of society and also has very important implications for self-esteem,” said Brenner. “When that is taken away, people become susceptible to depression, cardiovascular disease, AIDS and many other illnesses that increase mortality.”

Prior studies on the impact of income on survival have focused on very poor countries with high poverty and infant mortality rates. This study shows that the same principles apply to highly industrialized and wealthy societies in which occupational differences based on skill level, wages and working conditions vary considerably. Brenner said this is compounded by ethnicity, and it is this distinction which still makes for the central differences in illness, mortality rates and life expectancy in industrialized countries.

This study raises the issue to a national level-a government policy setting level,” said Brenner. “The main findings illustrate trends in mortality in Europe and North America based on economic growth and employment rates. The lower the employment rate, the more damaging, and full employment equals lower mortality rates.”

Brenner used a quantitative historical analytical method to test the theories and to study the historical processes concerning mortality and unemployment since World War II. The results of this study will be used to determine national policies relating to inflation, health services and education.

Brenner said this is the first time generalized fiscal economic policy is being made contingent upon assessment of public health implications. The European Commission funded this research with the objective of giving human meaning to unemployment rates over the last 10 to 55 years in 16 countries. The study also sheds light on and raises sensitivity to the mental and physical health implications on cardiovascular disease and suicide rates.

Brenner’s study not only looked at employment in general, but also at the kind of employment that can have an impact on mortality and well being. For example, jobs that encourage personal interaction, have greater stability and involve extensive use of knowledge resulted in better health and a sense of well being among workers. Within the labor force, there are jobs that are beneficial to health, such as those employing thinking, and there are low-end jobs that are sometimes detrimental and can actually increase mortality.

Brenner said the best way to address the issue of unemployment and mortality is to have a society that invests in educating people in the kinds of jobs that will drive the 21st century, such as science and technology fields.

We have evolved into a more thought-based workforce, so it is imperative that society maintain a highly-educated population,” said Brenner. “This is the central fact of well-being and life expectancy.”


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Media Contact

Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-980-2222