Background The adoption of healthier behaviours has been hypothesised as a mechanism to explain empirical findings of population health improvements during some economic downturns.
Methods We estimated the effect of the local unemployment rate on health behaviours using pooled annual surveys from the 2003–2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Surveys, as well as population-based telephone surveys of the US adult general population. Analyses were based on approximately 1 million respondents aged 25 years or older living in 90 Metropolitan Statistical Areas and Metropolitan Divisions (MMSAs). The primary exposure was the quarterly MMSA-specific unemployment rate. Outcomes included alcohol consumption, smoking status, attempts to quit smoking, body mass index, overweight/obesity and past-month physical activity or exercise.
Results The average unemployment rate across MMSAs increased from a low of 4.5% in 2007 to a high of 9.3% in 2010. In multivariable models accounting for individual-level sociodemographic characteristics and MMSA and quarter fixed effects, a one percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate was associated with 0.15 (95% CI −0.31 to 0.01) fewer drinks consumed in the past month and a 0.14 (95% CI −0.28 to 0.00) percentage-point decrease in the prevalence of past-month heavy drinking; these effects were driven primarily by men. Changes in the unemployment rate were not consistently associated with other health behaviours. Although individual-level unemployment status was associated with higher levels of alcohol consumption, smoking and obesity, the MMSA-level effects of the recession were largely invariant across employment groups.
Conclusions Our results do not support the hypothesis that health behaviours mediate the effects of local-area economic conditions on mortality.
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