Unemployment can have serious long-term health effects

Young woman alcoholic drinking alone

The study found that frequent unemployment negatively impacts a person’s future health.

Mental and physical health later in life is affected by unemployment.

According to a recent study, a person’s experience of unemployment in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s has a significant impact on their future health. This may in part be due to their lack of access to health care while they were unemployed.

In contrast to those who experienced very little unemployment throughout their careers, the researchers found that people who experienced unemployment frequently in their mid-to-late 20s and early 30s but had little experience of it after age 35 had poorer physical and mental health physical ailments had mental health by age 50.

In addition, people who were regularly unemployed from their mid-20s to late 40s had significantly poorer physical and mental health by age 50. A total score that included factors for energy, pain, and emotional well-being was used to determine how healthy people were.

The research is among the first to identify associations between the timing and frequency of unemployment and their health in midlife, and correlations between unemployment and health later in life.

Lack of access to health care when unemployed, says Sarah Damaske, associate professor of sociology, labor and employment relations, and women’s studies at Penn State University, may explain some of the findings.

“Nearly 75 percent of workers in the US have health insurance through their employers, potentially making the lingering impact of unemployment here greater than in other countries,” Damaske said. “Policies aimed at improving access to full-time work and health insurance, as well as efforts to promote healthy behaviors, can counteract the negative effects of unemployment.”

The study was recently published in Journal of Aging and Health.

According to Damaske, previous research has found a link between experiencing unemployment and poorer health. However, less was known about how different experiences of unemployment affected midlife health over time. For this study, the researchers wanted to identify different trajectories, or patterns, of unemployment that people experience and track how it affected their subsequent health by age 50.

The researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which included information from 6,434 participants surveyed every two years between the ages of 27 and 49 about the number of weeks they had been employed, unemployed, or unemployed in the previous year . Participants also completed questionnaires about their physical and mental health at ages 40 and 50.

“Additionally, at age 50, we also controlled for confounding variables that could confound the results,” said Adrianne Frech, an associate professor at the University of Missouri who led the study, “such as household and financial resources, and health behaviors such as alcohol use and smoking, body mass index and hours of sleep at night.”

After analyzing the data, the researchers identified three main groups, or trajectories, that participants tended to follow.

The “consistently low” trajectory comprised 70 percent of the sample and included participants who experienced the lowest levels of unemployment at each age. The “declining mid-career” group made up 18 percent of the sample and experienced most of their unemployment before age 35. “Persistently high” included the remaining 12 percent and included participants most likely to be unemployed in all age groups.

According to Damaske, part of the link between unemployment and poorer health outcomes could be explained by the confounding variables at age 50, which suggest areas not directly linked to employment that interventions could target.

“Some of the ‘scarring’ effects of unemployment can work through employment-based resources and health behavior traits,” Damasked said. “For example, lack of health insurance, smoking, and physical inactivity were associated with poorer physical and mental health by age 50. Interventions could aim to reduce these problems and hopefully lead to better health, regardless of employment status.”

The researchers said future studies could examine how length of unemployment affects health, as long-term unemployment could be more damaging to a person’s health.

Reference: “The Life Course of Unemployment and Midlife Health” by Adrianne Frech, Ph.D., Sarah Damaske, Ph.D. and Adrienne Ohler, Ph.D., May 6, 2022, Journal of Aging and Health.
DOI: 10.1177% 2F08982643221091775

Adrienne Ohler from the University of Missouri also participated in this work.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the Penn State Population Research Institute.

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