Economic downturns during the life-course and late-life health: an analysis of 11 European countries

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Background: Research has shown that individual socio-economic circumstances throughout life affect health in older ages. However, little attention has been paid to the broad economic context affecting individual’s life-chances. This paper examines whether economic downturns experienced during young and mid-adulthood have long-run effects on physical health. Methods: We exploit data on economic fluctuations in the period 1945–2010 in 11 European countries, linked to longitudinal data from three waves of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe. We estimate a country fixed effect model assessing whether downturns experienced at 5-year intervals between ages 25 and 54 are associated with levels and onset of new limitations with Activities of Daily Living (ADL) and Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADL) in older age (55–80). Results: Experiencing an economic downturn at ages 45–59 is associated with increased risk of having at least one disability limitation in later-life (odds ratio [OR] for ADL = 1.66, 95% CI [Confidence Interval] 1.24, 2.22; OR for IADL = 1.46, 95% CI 1.10, 1.94). Economic downturns at ages 40–44 and 45–49 also increase the risk of a new functional limitation in later-life (OR for IADL ages 40–44 = 1.20, 95% CI 1.03, 1.40; OR for IADL ages 45–49 = 1.44, CI 1.10–1.88). Economic downturns experienced around these ages are also associated with significantly greater risks of smoking and excessive alcohol consumption as well as lower incomes in older age. Conclusions: Exposure to an economic downturn at ages 40–49 is associated with poorer health in older ages, possibly by increasing risk of unhealthy behaviours and low incomes persisting into older age.

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