How does economic collapse alter the mortality rate?

With recessions come fewer people on the roads, which means fewer traffic accidents. And as we’re seeing now with worldwide lockdowns, less driving also means improved air quality. Since poor air quality is a public health crisis in its own right, the air cleanup caused by economic downturns could partly explain the reduction in deaths caused by respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

Less work also means fewer workplace injuries and more leisure time, which possibly leads to more exercise, more home cooking, and less money for booze and cigarettes.

This cheerful news hides a dark underbelly. While many people experience reduced stress, less risk of accidents, and lower disease burden as a result of economic downturns, others are still hit hard. Mental health deteriorates. Binge drinking booms. For some, stress-related conditions increase, and in the US, healthcare may become impossible to access for many. Suicide rates do seem to increase as a result of recessions—although both suicides and opioid-related deaths in the US have continued to increase even as the economy has recovered, and other factors play a role.

It’s a complex picture. In some arenas, mortality rates decrease; in others, they rise. Based on historical patterns, the health benefits appear to outweigh the costs in terms of sheer numbers of deaths.