The effects of economic crises go beyond the pocketbooks of a country’s citizens; there’s a wealth of evidence showing that crashes, austerity measures and uncertainty can affect the health of a nation as well.
This is particularly evident in Greece, where the global economic crisis left the country unable to pay its debts. Other European countries and the International Monetary Fund have helped keep the country afloat with new loans, in exchange for massive austerity efforts. By the end of 2012, the unemployment rate was at 26.8 percent.
A study presented in March at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology found that heart attack rates in Greece have risen along with the unemployment rate.
Researchers looked at the medical records of more than 22,000 patients admitted to the General Hospital of Kalamata’s cardiology department over eight years. The patient records were divided into two chronological groups: one set that were admitted between January 2005 and December 2007, before the economy tanked, and another that came in between January 2008 and December 2011, post-economic crisis.
After the crisis struck, heart attacks rose across the board – the researchers found a 21 percent increase in patients younger than 45, a 29 percent increase in patients older than 45, a 26 percent increase in men, and a 39 percent increase in women.
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"Unemployment is a stressful event and stress is connected with heart disease, but other issues also come with financial difficulties," study author Emmanouil Makaris, a cardiologist at Kalamata’s General Hospital, said in a statement. "In these times a lot of people do not have money to buy medications or to go to their primary care doctor. There's a great increase in cardiovascular diseases across the country. The cost to the society is very high."
Makaris points out his work focuses on a specific region, Messinia – the heart attack impact could be even worse in the more urban capital, Athens.
The health effects of the crisis aren’t just felt in the heart. A telephone survey of about 4,500 Greeks found that there was a substantial increase in the number of reported suicide attempts between 2009 and 2011, and more people reported having suicidal thoughts.
“People suffering from depression, men, married individuals, people experiencing financial strain, people with low interpersonal trust, and individuals with a history of suicide attempts were particularly vulnerable,” the authors wrote in the journal World Psychiatry in February.
Economic woes also affect the health of a state’s youngest citizens. Researchers from Greece’s National School of Public Health analyzed official health statistics and found that while the rate of stillbirths had been steadily declining before the crisis – from about 16 per 1,000 live births in 1966 to a low of 3.31 per 1,000 in 2008 – they’re now on the rise again. The stillbirth rate was 4.28 per 1,000 births in 2009 and 4.36 in 2010, a 32 percent jump between 2008 and 2010.
“We are worried that the stillbirth rate will continue to rise because an increasing number of pregnant women are unemployed and without insurance, and thereby excluded from the Greek National Healthcare System’s obstetric care,” authors Nikolaos Vlachadis and Eleni Kornarou wrote in a letter to the British Medical Journal this past February.
Amid all the dark news, there is at least one ray of light: Pollution levels have been declining in Greece since the crisis, likely because of less car use and industrial activity. Researchers led by Mihalis Vrekoussis of the Cyprus Institute monitored air pollution over Greece with satellites and ground-based instruments between 2007 and 2011. Sharp drops in nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen monoxide, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide were reported in a paper published in Geophysical Research letters in January.
That might cut Greece’s asthma rate a bit in the short term, but unless serious efforts are made to cut pollution and invest in greener energy, pollution levels could bounce back up again if, and when, the economy recovers.
"Investments in clean technologies and low-carbon green strategies have been abandoned," Vrekoussis told New Scientist. "I'm afraid that in the long run the negative effects will override the positives."