Health benefits of the Great Depression

Recession depression

It is paradoxical to think of the health benefits of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1939, considering the current economic woes. And yet, there were some interesting positive outcomes.

During the Great Depression, it is interesting to note death rates decreased in almost all categories and age groups throughout the world. Despite hard economic times, life expectancy actually increased in most categories. Average life expectancy in 1929 in North America at the beginning of the Great Depression was 57 years. At the peak of the Great Depression in 1934 in North America, the average life expectancy increased to 63 years. All major causes of death, including cardiovascular disease, lung diseases like flu, pneumonia and tuberculosis, as well as diabetes, cancer and traffic accidents decreased significantly. The only cause of death that increased during the period was suicide, particularly at the beginning of the Great Depression.

It is undeniable many people at the time experienced economic and financial hardship, loss of jobs and livelihoods and didn’t have the money or resources to maintain their standard of living.

Many of the dietary and lifestyle habits of good economic times are counterproductive to good health and welfare. During the depression, many people couldn’t afford to buy alcohol or cigarettes with the same regularity and quantity as before. They couldn’t afford to go to pubs, taverns and other places of “ill repute.” They couldn’t afford to eat out in restaurants and other establishments. They couldn’t afford to buy gasoline and drive automobiles with as much fervour as before.

Many had to curtail the bad habits they had during good economic times that probably contributed to poor health and welfare.

Other social factors also contributed to improved mortality rates. People had to work together and live together. They helped each other out. Instead of focusing on individual gains, friends, family and relatives pitched in together to make ends meet. The individual isolationist environment superseded a better sense of community. Working together and helping each other out was more advantageous than egotistical self-centredness.

Many families became resourceful. They planted gardens, canned foods, baked their own bread. They made their own clothes and recycled many products. They ate less meat and drank less milk, primarily because of the cost. They ate more whole foods and less processed foods. In many cases, they grew their own grains and cereals or bartered with others who did. Buttermilk, macaroni and peanut butter became household staples. Hearty vegetable soup and meat loaf became household delicacies. The motto “use it up, wear it out, make do or do without” was a common creed.

Fast forward to 2024 and things are not quite the same. We are still recovering emerging from the “Great Economic Recession” of 2008. We are recovering from the worldwide COVID pandemic that began in 2020 that also triggered economic stagnation and a brief recession. The economy is still sputtering to maintain its footing.

Instead of the monetary retraction policies that were used during the Great Depression, central banks have used monetary expansion to sustain the economy. As a result, inflation is still rearing its head and putting a drag on economic recovery. Many people are experiencing financial pressures. And yet, unlike the Great Depression, the mortality rates have increased by a staggering average of 10% in most countries in the Western world including Canada and the United States.

Most would erroneously assume the current mortality rates are a direct consequence of the COVID pandemic. There were indeed excess deaths from Covid infections from the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 to the official end of the pandemic in May 2023. However, as the virus mutated during the pandemic, it became just as infectious but certainly less lethal. And yet, we are still left with a high unexplained persistent—although somewhat reduced—level or excess mortality.

Most epidemiological experts believe the post COVID high level of mortality is due to several factors. The majority of excess deaths are due to increased levels of cardiovascular disease. The exact causes are unknown but stress seems to be a major factor and a reluctance to get proper medical care also appears to be an important factor. Many lifestyle factors are also believed to be contributory factors.

The rates of increased alcohol consumption, stress-related dietary patterns and increased levels of cigarette smoking and other related illicit drugs are believed to be accessory causal factors. Clearly there is not a reduction in mortality following an economic downturn. Things are economically bad, but not bad enough to stop supporting our bad habits.

One of the unique abilities of humans is their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Despite poor economic times people adapted to, and changed, their behaviours.

I still believe in the resilience of human behaviour. This time it may take a little bit longer.

The information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute medical advice. All information and content are for general information purposes only.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Doug Lobay is a practicing naturopathic physician in Kelowna, British Columbia.

He graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the University of British Columbia in 1987 and then attended Bastyr College of Natural Health Sciences in Seattle, Washington, where graduated with a doctorate in naturopathic medicine degree in 1991. While attending Bastyr College, he began to research the scientific basis of naturopathic medicine. 

He was surprised to find many of the current major medical journals abounded with scientific information on the use of diet, vitamins, nutritional supplements and herbal medicines.

Doug is a member of the College of Naturopathic Physicians of British Columbia and has practiced as naturopathic family physician for more than 30 years.  He maintains a busy practice in Kelowna where he sees a wide age range of patients with various ailments.

He focuses on dietary modification, allergy testing, nutritional assessments, supplement recommendation for optimal health, various physical therapy modalities, various intravenous therapies including chelation therapy.

An avid writer, he has written seven books on various aspects of naturopathic medicine that are available on Amazon and was also a long-time medical contributor to the Townsend Letter journal for doctors and patients, where many of his articles are available to view on-line. He has also given numerous lectures, talks and has taught various courses on natural medicine.

Doug enjoys research, writing and teaching others about the virtues of natural health and good nutrition. When not working, he enjoys cycling, hiking, hockey, skiing, swimming, tennis and playing guitar.

If you have any further questions or comments, you can contact Dr. Lobay at 250-860-7622 or [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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