The Science of Personal Finance

Unemployment Proves Deadly, Health Study Finds

The unemployed — especially men — have a drastically increased risk of dying early, according to new research. But jobless people can fight the statistics by avoiding bad habits.

"Our big finding is that unemployment does increase the risk of premature mortality by 63 percent," said Eran Shor, a member of the study's research team and a sociology professor at McGill University.

"There is probably a causal relationship here."

In past research on the topic, Shor said it was hard to distinguish whether pre-existing health conditions, such as diabetes or heart problems, or behaviors such as smoking, drinking or drug use, lead to both unemployment and a greater risk of death. In the new study, controls were included to account for those factors.

"One interesting thing is that we didn't find an effect for pre-existing health conditions," Shor told LiveScience.

Job loss is known to be bad for mental health, causing stress — and other research has shown that stress is deadly. The new study showed unemployment increases men's mortality risk more than 40 percent over women's. The increased risk of premature death is particularly high for those who are unemployed and under the age of 50.

The increased risk in men, Shor said, can be attributed to their strong desire to be the family’s primary breadwinner.

"In our society, men are more expected to have a job and bring home a salary," he said. "When they can't do that, it is very stressful."

That stress can, in turn, lead to poor health habits, Shor said.

"If you are unemployed, you are less likely to have good health care, and less likely to have healthy eating habits," he said.

Cincinnati psychologist Kenneth Manges said the unemployed need to pay extra attention to their health while they are out of work to avoid picking up bad habits that could cause problems later.

“They have to be mindful of the likelihood that they could fall into an unhealthy lifestyle,” said Manges, noting habits such as a lack of exercise, overeating, smoking and excess drinking could be easy ones to form. "They might get overwhelmed, and use those (things) as tension-relievers, when in fact they are tension-exasperators.”

To avoid slipping into these behaviors, Manges recommends attending support groups that offer encouragement for the unemployed and job-hunting help to get them back on their feet.  Such groups, he said, not only provide emotional support, but also give unemployed workers a chance to leave their house and socialize with other people.

Shor believes public health agencies should be the ones to address the issue.

"We should be targeting this with interventions," Shor said. Promoting aggressive cardiovascular screening and increased education regarding ways to reduce risky behaviors, he said, would be a good start.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at both McGill and Stoney Brook Universities, was published in the March 2011 issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine. It used existing research covering 20 million people in 15 countries over the last 40 years.

This $ci-Fi article is part of an ongoing LiveScience series that explores the science of personal finance to help you navigate everyday life.

LiveScience Contributor