Genetic Evidence Suggests Chronic Unemployment Shortens Lives

A new study finds Finnish men who suffered long periods of unemployment were more likely to possess a genetic marker indicating premature aging.
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Unemployed men outside a soup kitchen in Chicago, 1931. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Unemployed men outside a soup kitchen in Chicago, 1931. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

The high unemployment rates of recent years have led to variety of serious problems, including intense financial strains, tension within families, and the pain of careers being disrupted or destroyed. Now, disturbing new research finds being out of work for a long time appears to impact people in an even more basic way.

There is evidence that it shortens lives.

A first-of-its-kind study reports Finnish men who were unemployed for a substantial length of time over the previous three years were more likely to possess a genetic indicator of premature aging. This association persisted even after adjusting for other factors that could shorten one’s life.

"The traditional view of the man as the wage earner ... may also mean that unemployment is more harmful to men than to women."

The researchers, led by Leena Ala-Mursula of the University of Oulu in Finland and Jessica Buxton of Imperial College London, analyzed data on 5,620 men and women belonging to the Northern Finland Birth Cohort of 1966.

In 1997, when they were 31, they submitted DNA samples, which were used to measure the length of their leukocyte telomeres. These protein complexes at the ends of chromosomes “cap and protect linear chromosomes from degradation,” the researchers write.

University of Utah geneticists report "shorter telomeres are associated with shorter lives.” Previous studies have linked shorter telomeres with high levels of chronic stress, but research on telomere length and unemployment has been inconclusive.

The Finnish study compared telomere length with the number of days the person had been unemployed over the previous three years, as logged in the registers of the Finnish National Social Insurance Institute. The researchers then controlled for other factors that could impact the findings, including years of education, body-mass index, and common medical conditions.

The results, reported in the journal PLOS One: “Among 31-year-old men, unemployment exceeding 500 days or two calendar years within the previous three years was associated with shorter leukocyte telomere length,” the researchers report.

“The stress resulting from long-term unemployment appears to be of key importance,” they add. “The robustness of the result suggests that we did not merely identify those individuals with long-standing poor health or risky lifestyles.”

These results were not duplicated in the women, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The researchers note that women may have “more diverse options for socioeconomic activity, possibly reducing vulnerability to disappointments in any one area of life.

“The traditional view of the man as the wage earner ... may also mean that unemployment is more harmful to men than to women,” they add.

The study adds to the evidence that chronic unemployment is a serious health hazard. It also reinforces the argument of economists such as Paul Krugman that solving this problem should be our top economic priority.

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