Can Recessions Increase Health Risks?

High unemployment and poor economy may increase later teen risk for unhealthy behavior

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) If you thought the effects of the economic recession were temporary, think again. National unemployment dips may have a surprising long-term effect on the very youngest generations.

A recent study has found that even babies might experience long-term effects from a bad economy. The research found that high unemployment during infancy increases the risk that those babies will engage in unhealthy behaviors as teenagers.

If you're six months old during a deep recession, you might be more likely to smoke a joint or drink alcohol when you're a teenager. You might also be more likely to join a gang, smoke or steal.

But the association was very, very small, so there is no need for panic.

"Create a secure environment for kids."

The study, led by Seethalakshmi Ramanathan, MBBS, DPM, of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, focused on the poor economy and high unemployment rates after the recessions in 1980 and 1981-82.

The researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, when babies during the early 80s were teenagers. A total of 8,984 teens born in 1980 through 1984 were included.

The researchers looked at the rates of different unhealthy teen behaviors among the different adolescent age groups, taking into account risk factors relating to the family and environment that are already known.

The behaviors they investigated included substance abuse for marijuana, smoking, alcohol and hard drugs. They also looked at delinquent behaviors, including being arrested, use of handguns, gang affiliations, petty theft, major theft, property destruction and assault.

They found small changes in some of these behaviors among children who were one year old in the years when there was a 1 percent change from the average regional unemployment rates.

In other words, if the unemployment rate was normally 6 percent, and it became 7 percent in one-year-old children's geographical area, then the researchers saw a slight uptick in these behaviors for those children overall during their teenage years.

They found that these children were 9 percent more likely to use marijuana, 7 percent more likely to smoke and 6 percent more likely to use alcohol. All of these were very small associations. However, the math analysis showed that they were unlikely to be a result of chance or coincidence.

Likewise, they found that these children were 17 percent more likely to be arrested, 9 percent more likely to be involved in a gang, 6 percent more likely to engage in petty theft and 11 percent more likely to engage in major theft.

The researchers did not find any links between the unemployment rate during a child's infancy and later risk of hard drug use, property destruction or assaultive behavior.

The researchers caution that these results were found for a past generation exposed to two periods of higher unemployment in the 1980s. There could be many differences between that generation and today's generation.

The important information here is to be aware that a higher risk existed in the past, so these behaviors are things that parents, teachers and health professionals can be on the lookout for when today's babies grow up.

The researchers could not explain the reasons for the link, though they suggested that the poor economic conditions during infancy may affect a baby's psychological development. 

It is important for parents and caregivers of children whose families were hard hit by the recession to be conscious that these children could be affected in the longer term by these financial difficulties.

The study was published December 31 in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry. Information on the funding was unavailable.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 29, 2012
Last Updated:
January 2, 2013