Historical evidence strongly supports that economic growth and prosperity have been associated to declining mortality rates. To reinforce this principle, infant mortality and life expectancy are widely used as living standard indicators in cross-regional comparisons. While positive economic and social developments are concretized as gains in life expectancy, the recessionary implications on mortality rates are not that straightforward. Whether severe economic downturns affect the aggregate death rates has been the focus of much research, and findings are mixed. They appear to be sensitive to the choice of country, to the time period examined, and the length and intensity of the economic downturns.
This work, initially presented in Population Association of America 2014 Annual Meeting in Boston, examines whether the severe economic turmoil that Greece has been plunged into since 2009 has modified the death risk and/or the mortality pattern of Greek population. Based on macroeconomic data provided by the national Statistics Authority (EL.STAT.), analysis estimates age, sex and cause specific mortality for the years 2000-2012, and compares mortality indicators during the recessionary years with those of the pre-recession period. Due to the limited time span, only small changes (if any) were expected. Nevertheless, some noteworthy findings did come up.
Between 2000 and 2012, life expectancy at birth increased by almost two and half years: it rose from 75.5 to 78 years for men and from 81 up to 83.4 years for women. Although the overall gender gap remained unchanged, improvements in mortality were not equally experienced by men and women of different ages. The biggest gains in life expectancy were experienced primarily by older ages, especially by the population above 65 years of age, and to a smaller extent by babies in their first year of life. Declining mortality for ages higher than 65 years has contributed more than 60% of the change in life expectancy for men and almost 80% for women. Lowered infant mortality rates were responsible for slightly over than 10% of gain in life expectancy for both sexes. The contribution of the other age groups that lie in-between has been very small, varying from 0 to 4%. Contrary to the general trend, during the period examined, men and women in their late fifties underwent a slight retrogression in their health, reflected by increased age-specific mortality rates.
Since the 2008 recession, life expectancy has continued to increase. At the end of 2012, after five full years of recession, the average life span is longer by almost 6 months for men and 4 months for women. When decomposed, those gains in life expectancy vary significantly with age and gender. Increases in life expectancy are still higher for older ages, especially after age 70, regardless of the sex, while they are close to zero or even slightly negative for young and middle-aged women. For certain population groups, a loss in life expectancy, rather than a gain or stabilization, has been registered during those last five years. This is the case for women in their sixth decade (from 50 to 59) as well as for men from 50 to 69 years of age.
The explanatory factors behind this negative trend are relevant to the rise in some cause-specific mortality rates, namely mental and behavioral disorders as well as violent deaths, and to a lesser extent infectious diseases. Of all violent deaths, suicides merit some particular attention. According to official vital statistics data, male suicidal behavior has registered a statistically significant increase among elder workers (50-59 years) and young retirees (60-69). Those age groups are thought to be particularly vulnerable to labour market downturns: elderly workers face a high risk of losing their job and low probability of finding a new one; young retirees often have to cope with lowering living standards due to their status change. It is not evident that those trends are exclusively attributable to the current economic hardship, yet the increasing share of suicides with financial motives argues in favor of that point.
The evidence suggests that the deep and long economic recession has not seriously affected age-standardized mortality rates and life expectancy of Greek population: overall mortality rate has continued to decline and life expectancy has been increasing, though both at a slower (than earlier in the decade) pace. Nevertheless, the mortality pattern has been modified as the importance of certain causes of death has increased and the improvements in mortality have not been equal for all ages. There is a higher intensity of violent deaths among men, as well as an increasing frequency of deaths due to infectious diseases and mental disorders for both men and women. The increasing death risk for men between 55 and 69 years and for women between 50 and 59 is an additional alarming sign that should definitely not pass unnoticed. Despite the still minor impact of financial crisis on Greek mortality, these findings deserve attention from policy makers to avoid any further deterioration, especially if the economic recovery process takes longer than anticipated or hoped.