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Cristina Bellés-Obrero and Judit Vall Castelló

The impact of macroeconomic fluctuations on health and mortality rates has been a highly studied topic in the field of economics. Many studies, using fixed-effects models, find that mortality is procyclical in many countries, such as the United States, Germany, Spain, France, Pacific-Asian nations, Mexico, and Canada. On the other hand, a small number of studies find that mortality decreases during economic expansion. Differences in the social insurance systems and labor market institutions across countries may explain some of the disparities found in the literature. Studies examining the effects of more recent recessions are less conclusive, finding mortality to be less procyclical, or even countercyclical. This new finding could be explained by changes over time in the mechanisms behind the association between business cycle conditions and mortality. A related strand of the literature has focused on understanding the effect of economic fluctuations on infant health at birth and/or child mortality. While infant mortality is found to be procyclical in countries like the United States and Spain, the opposite is found in developing countries. Even though the association between business cycle conditions and mortality has been extensively documented, a much stronger effort is needed to understand the mechanisms behind the relationship between business cycle conditions and health. Many studies have examined the association between macroeconomic fluctuations and smoking, drinking, weight disorders, eating habits, and physical activity, although results are rather mixed. The only well-established finding is that mental health deteriorates during economic slowdowns. An important challenge is the fact that the comparison of the main results across studies proves to be complicated due to the variety of empirical methods and time spans used. Furthermore, estimates have been found to be sensitive to the use of different levels of geographic aggregation, model specifications, and proxies of macroeconomic fluctuations.


Anthropometrics is a research program that explores the extent to which economic processes affect human biological processes using height and weight as markers. This agenda differs from health economics in the sense that instead of studying diseases or longevity, macro manifestations of well-being, it focuses on cellular-level processes that determine the extent to which the organism thrives in its socio-economic and epidemiological environment. Thus, anthropometric indicators are used as a proxy measure for the biological standard of living as complements to conventional measures based on monetary units. Using physical stature as a marker, we enabled the profession to learn about the well-being of children and youth for whom market-generated monetary data are not abundant even in contemporary societies. It is now clear that economic transformations such as the onset of the Industrial Revolution and modern economic growth were accompanied by negative externalities that were hitherto unknown. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that the Welfare States of Western and Northern Europe take better care of the biological needs of their citizens than the market-oriented health-care system of the United States. Obesity has reached pandemic proportions in the United States affecting 40% of the population. It is fostered by a sedentary and harried lifestyle, by the diminution in self-control, the spread of labor-saving technologies, and the rise of instant gratification characteristic of post-industrial society. The spread of television and a fast-food culture in the 1950s were watershed developments in this regard that accelerated the process. Obesity poses a serious health risk including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some types of cancer and its cost reaches $150 billion per annum in the United States or about $1,400 per capita. We conclude that the economy influences not only mortality and health but reaches bone-deep into the cellular level of the human organism. In other words, the economy is inextricably intertwined with human biological processes.