Short Takes On News & Events

Recessions Harm Older Workers’ Long-Term Health, Data Show

By Jay Hancock

September 17th, 2012, 12:35 AM

There are 20 million Americans between 55 and 60. Nearly 1 million are unemployed, according to the Labor Department. Many more lack health coverage, suggests the Census Bureau’s new report on income, poverty and health insurance. Thanks to the lousy economy, the whole group is at higher risk for long-term health problems and earlier death, suggests new research from Wellesley College.

Wellesley economist Phillip B. Levine and colleagues mashed mortality and employment data over the past four decades to find what you might expect but what had never been measured on this scale: Experiencing an economic recession in your late 50s, on average, isn’t just bad for your wallet.

“Being unfortunate enough to experience a recession as an older worker has significant lifelong effects for one’s health,” Levine said in an interview.

Lack of income and health insurance are the presumed causes. The research is a newly published working paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The risk disappears for slightly older people, the economists found. Folks who were 62 or older when recessions and high unemployment hit showed survival rates little different from those who lived through a normal economy at that age. The theory: The Social Security program that kicks in at age 62 and the Medicare program that starts at 65 carried people through economic turbulence in ways that were unavailable to the slightly younger.

“It stresses the importance of Social Security to the well-being of the elderly,” Levine said. “If you hit a recession at 57, you have to figure out how you’re going to survive for the next several years. And that’s very difficult for a lot of people.”

Measured across the whole population of older workers, a recession’s effect on long-term health was subtle. If unemployment popped 5 percentage points while people were in their late 50s, their chances of living into their 70s fell by 0.0015 to 0.0020 percentage points, the economists found.

“Although these effects might appear to be incredibly small, it is important to interpret them within the context of the number of workers who lose their jobs during a recession, the number who may lose health insurance, and then the number of those whose health may be seriously affected as a result,” they wrote.

For example: In August there were 400,000 more unemployed Americans aged 55-59 than there were five years ago, according to the Labor Department.

Ironically, other research shows that recessions improve society-wide health in the short term. Less driving (fewer crashes) and less money to blow on alcohol are among the reasons. But for unemployed workers in their 50s, that’s probably small consolation.

6 Responses to “Recessions Harm Older Workers’ Long-Term Health, Data Show”

  1. ollie says:

    If this article makes you feel discouraged, you really need to read Paul Ryan’s budget and how, if he gets elected as our de facto President, we are just seeing the beginning of healthcare austerity in America for older middle-class workers. Today, older Americans have an opportunity like never before. With the Affordable Care Act (ACA), nobody can be tossed off their policy just because they happened to get sick. You can get a policy even if you had a pre-existing condition now that the ACA is law. Seniors get doughnut hole relief as a result of the ACA. You can get preventive health screenings like never before as a result of the ACA. Beginning in 2014, older Americans that are not eligible for Medicare, along with every other American, will be able to purchase comprehensive healthcare at reasonable prices and get help with the cost if they fall below certain income standards. However, if Ryan gets elected as our de facto President, you can forget it! A de facto President Ryan wants to turn back the clock to before the Obamacare law was enacted. A de facto President Ryan wants to repeal Obamacare and return America’s healthcare system back to private insurance company control. He wants change traditional Medicare and turn it into a capped voucher program that’s controlled by the insurance companies. This article paints an ugly picture for older Americans but it gets even uglier if Ryan becomes our de facto President. The Ryan budget is mean to the middle-class while it protects the wealthy and it increases tax breaks for those earning over $250,000 per year. The Ryan budget increases military spending by huge amounts and increases our military personnel strength by another 100,000 troops. I guess Ryan is expecting another war somewhere in the world. Maybe Iran? Republicans certainly love the wars they start because it fattens the wallets of their wealthy buddies in the weapons industry. The choice is clear in November. Electing Romney and Ryan will be devastating for the middle-class and the poor. Stop whining and go vote like your very life depended on it because the fact is, it does!

  2. Katherine says:

    The hidden statistic that there were 400,000 more unemployed Americans aged 55-59 than there were five years ago is really important. This age group really gets hit with the double whammy of loss of income and loss of insurance–plus hideous stress. Don’t know any brilliant solution except to get everyone back to work. Scary.

  3. oncdoc says:

    Pardon me but I cant type fast enough to fully explain all of my thoughts on this issue. I live with the increasing austerity and over-regulation imposed by the government on healthcare workers and hospitals every day. IMO, none of the seemingly endless stream of measures imposed over the past few yrs have improved real quality, access or lowered cost. The quality of healthcare for the average Medicare pt is falling fast! The avg hospital nurse in our area has been out of school about 3 yrs and the hospitals are hiring foreign docs and relying on locums, just to get the basic work done. I dont believe that this is a sustainable strategy and there are likely to be real shortages that hurt pts in the very near future. The present model of below market price controls will only amplify the shortages and destroy the quality of care. IMO Obama should have invested all effort into reforming and saving Medicare and worried about insurance reform and indigent healthcare later. I believe that Obamacare has damaged Medicare further.

  4. Sharon says:

    While a good article emphasizing the negative health effects of unemployment on those in their late 50s onward, it is one of hundreds of articles I’ve read over the past years (2008-2012) describing this desperate and monstrous situation. Yet there is no poltiical will to do anything about it – by either party. There are a number of actionable steps and programs that could be taken to re-employ older workers (without huge sums of money) but politicians don’t see any upside, i.e., campaign contributions, or being pushed to respond to activist baby boomers (who need to get up off their backsides and demand steps be taken). In the meantime, unless action is taken soon, many, many baby boomers will face poverty and negative health effects. I myself am trying to figure out how to pay for health insurance after two rate increases this year (I am in good health) and being unable to qualify for medicaid. I am on the verge of becoming “uninsured” since that seems to be the only alternative.

  5. ollie says:

    No political will? Who? As I recall, before he got elected, Obama promised healthcare reform. As President, Obama got it done. Republicans don’t like it because they didn’t get the credit. Why? Because Republicans are the ones with a fractured party and no political will and they are angry that a black man had the vision and the audacity to get the job done. Republicans are all talk and no action. Say what you will about the specifics of the new reform law, the fact remains that Obamacare gets the ball rolling. Something Republicans have not been able to ever do regarding healthcare reform. Need a war somewhere in the world? That’s what Republicans are good at! Even thought they don’t have a clue on how to end one!

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