Health care can often be compromised during economic recessions, as households trim their expenses and take a second look at what they can afford.
When health expenses come under scrutiny, that trip to the dentist is often postponed and people will say farewell to the regular massage.
But it’s not a simple case of less money equalling poorer health. There are some surprising twists in the relationship between income, health and wellbeing.
Of course, a basic level of income is needed to ensure our health and happiness, but it’s not as much as you might expect.
How low can you go?
The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index (AUWI), which has been tracking the lives of adult Australians since 2001, finds that households with a gross income of A$15,000 or less have a wellbeing score well below the normal range. Once income reaches A$31,000 to A$60,000 the wellbeing score returns to normal.
Wellbeing increases pretty much in line with income until A$100,000, after which more money doesn’t add up to greater life satisfaction, says Professor Bob Cummins, who heads up the AUWI surveys.
“Supportive relationships offset the difficulties associated with low income,” Cummins says. “On the whole, they matter more to your wellbeing than money.”
The average score, which ranges from 73.7 to 76.7, has been remarkably stable over the years and showed no significant change post-2009, Cummins says. “Presumably this is because Australia didn’t suffer too badly.”
Some may cope with the stress of uncertain times by using food, alcohol or drugs as self-soothers. Frugal times can also drive a healthier lifestyle, involving less alcohol, fewer fatty takeaways and fewer gourmet meals.
‘It’s inequality that makes us sick’
That may help explain why people are less likely to die during an economic recession than an upturn, according to research summarised by Dr Stephen Bezruchka from the Departments of Health Services and Global Health at the University of Washington School of Public Health.
The observation that in affluent countries mortality rates (deaths per 1000 individuals per year) go up with economic expansions and down with contractions challenges the dominant paradigm that economic growth is good for us, but it makes sense to Garry Egger, Professor of Lifestyle Medicine at Southern Cross University and author of Planet Obesity.
Growth beyond maturity is cancer or obesity.– Garry Egger, Planet Obesity
He explains in his book how economic growth improved our health until the “sweet spot” of the 1980s. Since then it’s led to diminishing returns in human wellbeing. The high-stress, sleep-deprived lifestyle involving little physical activity and too many calories that often accompanies the acquisition of more money is a disservice to our bodies.
“Growth beyond maturity is cancer or obesity,” Egger says. “Fair distribution of wealth is more important to a nation’s health than absolute wealth. It’s inequality that makes us sick. In countries that have strong social support systems and a reduced gap between the rich and poor, such as Denmark and Sweden, health is much better.”
The truly bad health news about economic downturns is that unemployment and job insecurity lead to greater stress and poorer mental and physical health. Suicide rates also increase during economic recessions.
Kate Carnell, CEO of beyondblue – Australia’s national depression initiative – says the organisation has received more requests for help and information since the global financial crisis.
“We hear many stories of men who leave home in the morning as if going to work. They go to a car park then return home eight hours later, taking months to tell their family they have lost their job.”
Carnell encourages those affected by unemployment or job insecurity to share their concerns with their family.
“Face the problem together as a team and be proactive. Using a structured problem-solving approach can help you feel more in control.”
Top tips for staying healthy
- Nurture your supportive relationships – they keep you well
- Embrace the health opportunities that can come from more thrifty living
- Learn healthy ways to cope with stress rather than over-consuming food or alcohol
- Keep an eye on your mental health and seek help early if you aren’t coping
About the AUWI
The AUWI is a quarterly survey measuring personal wellbeing. It includes seven domains: health; personal relationships; how safe you feel; standard of living; life achievements; feeling part of the community and future security.