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March 14, 2018

The Great Recession raised America’s blood pressure—literally

Daily Briefing

    Millions of U.S. residents lost their homes and jobs during the Great Recession, but a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests the economic downturn also had invisible health effects.

    For the study, a team of researchers examined the effects of the Great Recession, which lasted from 2007 through 2009, on U.S. residents' health. To do so, the researchers analyzed data from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis on the blood glucose and blood pressure levels of about 4,600 U.S. residents between ages 45 and 84. The data sets allowed the researchers to examine the blood metrics both before and after the recession.

    According to STAT News, blood glucose and blood pressure levels are ideal metrics for researchers studying the effects of a short-term event because they can change over a short time frame and are commonly viewed as physiological responses to stress.

    Teresa Seeman, the study's lead author and an epidemiologist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), said the study's cohort is not nationally representative, which means its results cannot be generalized to the entire U.S. population.

    Study findings

    The researchers found an association between the Great Recession and an increase in both blood glucose and blood pressure levels among U.S. residents. According to the researchers, the Great Recession particularly affected the blood glucose and blood pressure levels of U.S. residents under age 65 who were employed—and were at a greater risk of job loss during the recession—and U.S. residents over age 65 who were homeowners, and were at a greater risk of seeing their homes' values decline.

    For example, the researchers found U.S. residents under 65 who were on medication when the Great Recession started saw their systolic blood pressure reach levels about 12 mmHg higher than they would have been due to aging alone. The researchers also found that U.S. residents under 65 who were on medication when the Great Recession started saw an increase in blood glucose levels by about 11% as of 2012.

    According to the study, blood glucose and blood pressure levels rose partly because fewer U.S. residents took their medications after the Great Recession began in the United States. In particular, the researchers found 17% fewer U.S. residents over age 65 took their blood pressure medications after the Great Recession started. Similarly, the researchers found the number of elderly U.S. residents taking insulin decreased by nearly 13% during the Great Recession. The researchers explained that fewer U.S. residents might have been taking their medications because of changes to their health insurance status.


    Seeman said, "To me, this study is ringing a bell and showing that it's more than just economic, health needs to be a concern as well." Seeman continued, "When populations are faced with major economic stresses, we need to keep in mind the likely health risks that may result." She added, "Here in the U.S., we're not very responsive to economic downturns, but we particularly don't pay much attention to the health consequences."

    Jessica Jones-Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington's School of Public Health, said the study is "probably one of the strongest papers on the recession," though several questions remain about the long-term health effects of the Great Recession.

    Claire Margerison, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics in the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University, said the study "makes an important contribution" to the field of population health (Wan, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 3/12; Inserro, American Journal of Managed Care, 3/12; Sheridan, STAT News, 3/12; Scutti, CNN, 3/12).

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