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Iceland Recession Actually Improved Health Of Residents: Report

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Icelandians smoked cigarettes less in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.
Icelandians smoked cigarettes less in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

An economic downturn may be better for your health than you realize.

The 2008 financial crisis in Iceland improved the health of the country’s population, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Iceland, the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center and Rider University. In the aftermath of the crisis, Icelandians cut back on behaviors that put their health at risk and even boosted some behaviors that promote good health.

Between 2007 and 2009, Iceland's residents reduced their smoking, heavy drinking, indoor tanning and consumption of unhealthy foods like sugary drinks, sweets and fast food, the study found. Though Icelandians cut back on healthy behaviors like eating fruits and vegetables in the aftermath of the recession, they consumed more fish oil and were more likely to get the recommended amounts of sleep.

Iceland’s banking sector came crashing down in the span of a week amid the global financial crisis of 2008. The banks collapsed under pressure from large debts they built up attempting to expand overseas in the lead up to the crisis.

Though the findings of the Iceland study may seem counterintuitive, recessions have been shown to improve health elsewhere in the world. Economic downturns during the 20th century have been associated with a drop in mortality rates, according to Slate.

"There is a pretty broad literature on this," MIT health economist Jonathan Gruber wrote in an e-mail to Slate’s Timothy Noah. "[A]nd the consensus seems to be that recessions are good for health."

Still, there may be evidence to challenge the trend. In poorer countries, a boost in economic growth leads to a drop in mortality rates. And in the United Kingdom, the recession put managers at risk of poor health as their workloads increased, according to a recent study from Chartered Management Institute. In addition, the recession has put pressure on British bosses to come to work sick.

Stateside, the economic downturn may be hurting Americans health as patients are forced to cut back amid rising unemployment and health care costs. Nearly 60 percent of Americans put off or went without health care they needed in the previous 12 months, according to a June report from the Kaiser Foundation. Let's also not discount the toll unemployment can take on a person.

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