Economic Crisis Is 'Unfortunate Opportunity' for Health Researchers

Downturn is a natural experiment for scientists studying the health effects of socioeconomic factors.

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PALM HARBOR, FLORIDA—In a presentation this morning at a conference on cardiovascular health, one researcher described a thin silver lining in the current economic downturn. Karen Matthews of the University of Pittsburgh told listeners that she sees the global economic crisis as an "unfortunate opportunity" for researchers to examine the health effects of socioeconomic changes such as job loss and employment-related stress. With so many people losing homes, jobs, or wealth, these hard times represent what epidemiologists call a "natural experiment," that is, a situation of changing circumstances that—while helpful to study for scientific purposes—would never be ethical to impose on people for the sole purpose of studying the effects.

Past natural experiments have yielded insights that researchers might never have gained if they'd confined their studies to lab experiments and clinical trials. For example, researchers have gleaned important information about the causes of schizophrenia by studying children born during the horrific Dutch Famine, which affected the population of the Netherlands during World War II, and those born in China during the Great Leap Forward, which also led to widespread hunger and starvation. Kids born to malnourished mothers in either of those times and places have been found to be particularly susceptible to schizophrenia.

By the same token, today's rising unemployment may give researchers a chance to understand the health effects of job loss (and fear of job loss). Numerous studies have linked stress to cardiovascular disease and other medical problems, and Matthews spoke about several of them in her presentation. One finding she mentioned particularly struck a chord: A Finnish study published a few years ago suggests that workers whose employers undergo major job cuts—even those workers who dodge the cuts and keep their jobs—are at greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

That means anyone who works in an industry undergoing contraction is potentially at risk. And pretty much every industry (including journalism, my own) seems to be shedding jobs these days.