Recent events highlight the importance of examining the impact of economic downturns on population health. The Great Depression of the 1930s was the most important economic downturn in the U.S. in the twentieth century.
We used historical life expectancy and mortality data to examine associations of economic growth with population health for the period 1920–1940. We conducted descriptive analyses of trends and examined associations between annual changes in health indicators and annual changes in economic activity using correlations and regression models.
Population health did not decline and indeed generally improved during the 4 years of the Great Depression, 1930–1933, with mortality decreasing for almost all ages, and life expectancy increasing by several years in males, females, whites, and nonwhites. For most age groups, mortality tended to peak during years of strong economic expansion (such as 1923, 1926, 1929, and 1936–1937).
In contrast, the recessions of 1921, 1930–1933, and 1938 coincided with declines in mortality and gains in life expectancy. The only exception was suicide mortality which increased during the Great Depression, but accounted for less than 2% of deaths.
Correlation and regression analyses confirmed a significant negative effect of economic expansions on health gains. The evolution of population health during the years 1920–1940 confirms the counterintuitive hypothesis that, as in other historical periods and market economies, population health tends to evolve better during recessions than in expansions.