Life expectancy during the great depression in eleven European countries

Tim-Allen Bruckner, University of California, Irvine
Andrew Noymer, University of California, Irvine
Ralph Catalano, University of California, Berkeley

The global economic recession has renewed interest in knowing whether a declining economy affects population health. Understanding the extreme case of the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn in the 20th century, may inform the current debate as well as theory regarding biological and behavioral adaptations to unwanted economic change. We test the hypothesis, recently suggested in the literature, that period life expectancy at birth improved during the Great Depression. We applied time-series methods to annual period life expectancy data of the civilian population from eleven European countries: Denmark, England and Wales, Finland, France, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, and Switzerland. Our methods control for trends and other forms of autocorrelation in life expectancy that could induce spurious associations. We find that period life expectancy at birth during the Great Depression generally remains within the interval forecasted from historical values. Additional analyses using an automated, rule-based methodology also indicate no perturbation in life expectancy. During the most crippling phase of the Great Depression, period life expectancy in eleven European countries generally did not rise above expected levels.

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Presented in Session 1: International comparisons of health/mortality