Great Depression added 6.2 years to life expectancy

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Life and death during the Great Depression:

Recent events highlight the importance of examining the impact of economic downturns on population health. The Great Depression of the 1930s was the most important economic downturn in the U.S. in the twentieth century. We used historical life expectancy and mortality data to examine associations of economic growth with population health for the period 1920-1940. We conducted descriptive analyses of trends and examined associations between annual changes in health indicators and annual changes in economic activity using correlations and regression models. Population health did not decline and indeed generally improved during the 4 years of the Great Depression, 1930-1933, with mortality decreasing for almost all ages, and life expectancy increasing by several years in males, females, whites, and nonwhites. For most age groups, mortality tended to peak during years of strong economic expansion (such as 1923, 1926, 1929, and 1936-). In contrast, the recessions of 1921, 1930-1933, and 1938 coincided with declines in mortality and gains in life expectancy. The only exception was suicide mortality which increased during the Great Depression, but accounted for less than 2% of deaths. Correlation and regression analyses confirmed a significant negative effect of economic expansions on health gains. The evolution of population health during the years 1920–1940 confirms the counterintuitive hypothesis that, as in other historical periods and market economies, population health tends to evolve better during recessions than in expansions.

Also see ScienceDaily. I guess these papers are seeing the light of day because they’re “relevant” again, but apparently these sorts of counterintuitive data have been an open secret for a while.



  1. Calorie restriction during great depression might have some thing to do with it. In other words, having enough to eat is bad for normal human life. Most human are products of farmine any way.

  2. It could be caloric restriction or it could be that people drank alcohol less during the depression than during the roaring 20′s (when everyone went to speak easys).

  3. I too was thinking caloric restriction, but what about the later downturns wherein the same pattern seems to show (would it still be significant, when you take out the Great Depression?)  
    I’m not sure whether reduced eating did in fact happen in the Big One – but surely it did not happen in the subsequent ones when the economy was far, far above subsistence.

  4. Let me be the first to suggest the dumb, obvious, almost certainly wrong hypothesis: life expectancy at birth increases in a depression, because in a depression poorer people make fewer babies! 
    The mortality rates for old folks seem rather difficult to explain. Can caloric restriction explain a distinct year-to-year difference in mortality among 80 years old people? For younger people, you might invoke socio-environmental causes (e.g. working conditions), but those don’t apply to the 70+yo class.

  5. Marriage rate went down by 15%. Maybe delaying marriage had a positive affect, too.

  6. Marriage rate went down by 15%. Maybe delaying marriage had a positive affect, too.

  7. Wouldn’t calorie restriction be partially due to geographic location? 
    Though surely not true of all rural areas, my parents (both born in 1923) and their brothers and sisters have always talked about how there was plenty to eat, it just might not be exactly what they wanted. 
    They also joke about not knowing there was a depression because they were so poor in the first place. It seems obvious to me they had lots of calorie resources not available to a city dweller. 
    Was there still a life expectancy increase in rural areas?

  8. This link may be Eight Americas
    The paper divides the US population into eight groups. Five were high-mortality groups: three different black groups, poor white Southerners, and reservation Indians.  
    One group, by far the largest, was generic Americans and gave a baseline.  
    The two low-mortality groups were Asian-Americans and poor whites )only poor) in the Upper Midwest. Only the last group is really surprising. 
    One part of the explanation is tobacco, which is used less in this area. But the other is probably just a frugal diet. (Not vegetarian, just sort of sparse.)

  9. Perhaps people ate less sugar?

  10. John Emerson — given that the study you cite took those 35 years or younger in 1985, how does that correlate to the Great Depression Era which took place 10 to 20 years previously? 
    Is there a correlation I’m missing?

  11. Poverty and a frugal diet. The “eighth America” is defined by poverty — prosperous Americans in the same area have only average life expectancies.

  12. Generally, Americans behaved extremely well during the Great Depression. I was looking at my dad’s 1936 junior college engineering textbook recently and I just got an overpowering sense that this was written by serious grown-ups for serious students.

  13. Poverty and a frugal diet 
    According to labor department statistics, Asian American spend more than any other groups on food in term of both home cooking and eating out. That does not sound like `frugal diet’

  14. Here is data indicating that Asian American spend more on food and education than others. Food for mouth and knowlage for brain are big deal for asian.

  15. “Frugal” in “frugal diet” doesn’t just mean “cheap” but something like “temperate” or “sparse”. Check it out on Google.  
    Asians (I’m thinking about Chinese) think very poorly of gluttony. Eating out is a special treat, for special occasions. I briefly lived with prosperous Chinese family in Taiwan, and their normal meal was rice, tofu, greens, and a very thin soup.  
    Taiwan was already approaching prosperity when I was there in 1983, but you still didn’t see many fat Chinese. In fact, if you did see a fat Chinese you’d wonder what his story was (spoiled son of a rich man, usually). I got the nickname “big belly” there, even though I was only about 20 lbs. overweight by American standards. 
    Someone who lives on Coke and potato chips has an unfrugal diet even though they don’t spend much money on food.

  16. Did they control for the effects of Prohibition? If not, that’s a huge uncontrolled variable.

  17. Prohibition ended in 1933, so it wasn’t a factor during some of that period, 1938 at least. The depression can be defined in various ways; most people would include 1933-1937, though the paper doesn’t seem to.

  18. A lot of my friends are having problems with physical intimations of mortality at a far earlier are than did their parents. Their parents mostly lived into their 70s, 80s, 90s–people who were born in the first two or three decades of the 20th century.  
    I have heard that the current generation of young people (not sure how that is defined) is the first on record to have a shorter anticipated life span than their parents. Personally, I think educated people are eating better than what was usual in the mid-20th century, but we are exposed to more environmental toxins and stresses. Also drugs. No matter what people say about certain drugs being “natural”, they cloud the thinking eventually, and clog the organs. Marijuana gets into the fat cells and is harder than some drugs to detoxify.

  19. The oldest man in the world (according to Guinness) says “I think you should push back from the table when you’re still hungry,” Breuning told USA Today. “You get in the habit of not eating at night, and you realize how good you feel. If you could just tell people not to eat so darn much.” 
    And he’s from the Upper Midwestern demographic I was talking about.