Social Security, Medicare and life expectancy

Reference: Economic Policy Institute Blog

by Monique Morrissey

September 26, 2012

Two new studies find that unemployment at older ages may shorten life and that the gap in life expectancy between less and more educated workers is widening. Though neither result may seem surprising, the first is at odds with some previous research, while the second reinforces earlier findings but provides shocking new statistics—notably the fact that the least educated white women have seen their life expectancy at birth fall by five years since 1990, as highlighted in a recent New York Times article.

A seminal paper by Christopher J. Ruhm (2000) found that recessions were associated with lower mortality rates, a counterintuitive result confirmed by later studies. Ann Huff Stevens et al. (2011) identified a possible reason: Reduced employment opportunities in the broader labor market appeared to leave nursing homes better staffed, explaining why the pro-cyclical mortality effect was concentrated among seniors.

In other words, while higher unemployment may be associated with lower mortality, this doesn’t necessarily mean working is bad for your health. Later research focusing on workers who lost their jobs (as opposed to economy-wide unemployment rates) found that displaced workers experienced elevated mortality, as you would expect after a loss of income and health benefits (Sullivan and von Wachter 2009).

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