Page last updated at 09:13 GMT, Wednesday, 30 July 2008 10:13 UK

Can the credit crunch make us ill?

Emma Wilkinson
Health reporter, BBC News

Stressed woman
Stress can have a detrimental impact on health

After living through a period of relative prosperity, the recent downturn in the economy may have come as a bit of a shock to most of us.

But can falling house prices and rises in the cost of living harm more than our bank balance.

Is our health also at risk?

There is evidence that in times of "recession" life expectancy falls.

Professor Martin McKee, an expert in European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says much of the research on the issue was done in the former Soviet Union where there was a dramatic deterioration in financial security.

"We have shown that regions in the Soviet Union which had the most rapid rate of economic change, for example, loss of jobs, had the highest increase in death rates," he says.

Stress effects the cardiovascular system and the immune system and in the long term it leads to a sort of 'rapid ageing' making you vulnerable to all sorts of different things
Professor Richard Wilkinson

"And there are lots of other historical parallels, for example as shown in Charles Dickens' novel, Hard Times," he says.

In wealthy countries there is not a fantastically strong relationship between economic success and a long life.

For example, the fact the US is around twice as rich as say Spain or Greece is not reflected in life expectancy.

The social environment may be more important.

And countries with more even distribution of wealth, such as those in Scandinavia, can also boast better life expectancy.

Uncertainty

But, says Professor Richard Wilkinson a social epidemiologist at the University of Nottingham, instability in the job market can have an impact on our health.

"Unemployment is always quite damaging to the unemployed themselves but also to those left in jobs who feel increasingly insecure.

Look at post-war Britain - everyone was living a pretty deprived existence but mental health and well-being was fairly good
Professor Alan Maryon Davis

"When people started looking at unemployment and health they looked at factory closures where everyone was laid off together but they found that health actually worsened before when there was a threat of closure."

He says it ultimately comes down to stress and we know a lot more these days about stress-related illness than we did in previous times of hardship.

"Stress effects the cardiovascular system and the immune system and in the long term it leads to a sort of 'rapid ageing' making you vulnerable to all sorts of different things," he explains.

In fact a recently published study shows psychological distress such as anxiety, insomnia, depression, apathy and fatigue can more than double the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in men.

Professor Danny Dorling, an expert in human geography at the University of Sheffield carried out a study in the 1990s to ask what benefits would there be if British society was more "equal".

He found some 2500 deaths per year in the under 65s would be prevented in a scenario where there was full employment.

For sale signs
Financial difficulties can cause a great deal of stress

"People are twice as likely to die when they are not employed," he says.

"It's not because people are poorer, it's the risk of being made redundant which effects a person's chances of dying."

He adds that some places in Britain, such as Glasgow East, had never really come out of recession and the poorer health and life expectancy suffered by those who never found work again are a good indicator of what can happen.

"The really bad thing about a recession is people internalise their feelings of fear and the effects you can measure are really just the tip of the iceberg.

"Also the effects are cumulative - it's rather like smoking, the collected insults prematurely age you.

"Rates of depression are likely to rise and we're already taking a record amount of antidepressants," he says.

"Something like one in ten people in Glasgow are on prozac."

Fertility may be another casualty in lean times as people marry later in life and hold back from having children, he adds.

Mental health

So far, the biggest, or at least most noticeable, impact of the credit crunch has been on the housing market.

A study published last year by a team of researchers in Essex found that struggling to meet the mortgage payments can have a detrimental effect on mental health.

It may seem obvious but these psychological effects, measured after the crash in house prices in the early 1990s, were over and above those associated with financial hardship in general and similar in magnitude to losing a job.

Professor Alan Maryon Davis, president of the Faculty of Public Health said whether or not the credit crunch will make people "unhealthy" is a difficult one to answer.

"I expect you will see an effect on mental well-being because people will feel very pressured."

But people do not always behave as you would expect, he adds.

"Look at post-war Britain - everyone was living a pretty deprived existence but mental health and well-being was fairly good."

Professor McKee agrees the picture is not black and white.

"The key issue is change - there's also evidence that rapid increases in the economy are bad for people so it can work both ways."


SEE ALSO
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23 Jan 08 |  Health

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