Great Recession heightened cardiovascular risk factors, study finds

The risks of losing homes and jobs during the Great Recession took a toll on public health.


The Great Recession, from late 2007 to mid-2009, was associated with heightened cardiovascular risk factors, including increased blood pressure and glucose levels, according to a new UCLA-led study. The conditions were especially pronounced among older homeowners and people still in the work force, two groups that may have been especially vulnerable to the stresses this recession brought about.


Virtually all Americans were affected directly or indirectly by the Great Recession, the most significant economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s — some lost jobs, others their houses or life savings. Previous studies have arrived at mixed evidence for the health impact of the recession, with some reporting negative health effects and others reporting benefits. But no study has looked at health measures at multiple time points leading up to the recession or used well-known biomarkers of overall health — blood pressure and glucose — to study the question objectively.


The team looked at data from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis for the period from 2000 to 2012. Blood pressure and glucose levels for the 4,600 participants, ages 45 to 84, were analyzed at the outset, at multiple times leading up to the Great Recession and one time immediately after the recession ended. The researchers calculated changes in blood pressure and glucose level that would have been expected to occur naturally with age had the recession not occurred, and compared that information to the changes that were actually observed at the end of the recession. The two sets of results, which are particularly valuable since they change rapidly in response to stress, provide a more accurate snapshot of how the crisis may have affected public health.

The results suggest that not only did both blood pressure and glucose rise during the recession, but the changes were also particularly pronounced in people still in the labor force (under age 65) and older homeowners (over age 65). The researchers point out that both groups might be especially vulnerable to psychological fallout of economic downturns, since they could be at risk of losing jobs and houses, respectively.


The results provide strong evidence that economic crises can have measurable effects on public health. Understanding these connections in greater detail may help health care providers and policymakers prepare better for this reality in the future. The team next plans to look at additional time points after the Great Recession, and take into account other markers of health, including inflammation and insulin resistance. They’ll also try to determine whether there were any regional differences for the recession’s effects on public health.


Teresa Seeman, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, is the study’s first author. Dr. Arun Karlamangla, a geriatrician in the Geffen School, is the senior author. Other authors are: Sharon Merkin and Karol Watson, both of UCLA, Duncan Thomas of Duke University and Kari Moore of Drexel University.


The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


The research was funded by grants from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

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