There are20 million Americans between55 and 60.Nearly 1 millionare unemployed, according to the Labor Department.Many morelack health coverage,suggests the Census Bureau s new report on income, poverty and health insurance. Thanks to the lousy economy, thewhole group is at higherrisk forlong-term health problems and earlier death,suggestsnew researchfromWellesley College.

Wellesley economist Phillip B.Levine and colleagues mashed mortalityand employment data over the past four decades to find what you might expect butwhat had never been measured on this scale:Experiencing an economic recessionin your late 50s, on average, isn tjust bad foryour wallet.

Being unfortunate enough to experience a recession as an older worker has significant lifelong effects for one s health, Levine said in an interview.

Lack of income and health insurance are the presumedcauses. The research is a newly published working paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The riskdisappears for slightly older people, the economists found. Folks who were 62 or older whenrecessionsand high unemployment hit showed survival rates littledifferent fromthose who lived through a normal economy at that age.The theory:The Social Security program that kicks in at age 62 and the Medicare program that starts at 65 carried people through economic turbulence in ways that were unavailable to the slightly younger.

It stresses the importance of Social Security to the well-being of the elderly, Levine said. If you hit a recession at 57, you have to figure out how you re going to survive for the next several years. And that s very difficult for a lot of people.

Measured across the whole population of older workers, a recession s effect on long-term healthwas subtle.If unemployment popped5 percentage points while people were in theirlate 50s, theirchances of living into their70s fell by 0.0015 to 0.0020 percentage points, the economists found.

Although these effects might appear to be incredibly small, it is important to interpret them within the context of the number of workers who lose their jobs during a recession, the number who may lose health insurance, and then the number of those whose health may be seriously affected as a result, they wrote.

For example:In August there were400,000 more unemployed Americans aged 55-59than there were fiveyears ago, according to the Labor Department.

Ironically, other research shows that recessions improve society-wide health in the short term. Less driving (fewer crashes) and less money to blow on alcoholare among the reasons.But forunemployed workers in their 50s, that s probably smallconsolation.

Republished with permission from Kaiser Health News.

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