Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 18th July 2016

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

Mortality inequality: the good news from a county-level approach. Journal of Economic Perspectives [RePEcPublished Spring 2016

Research on mortality trends always focuses on the bad news. For example, in a well publicized article Anne Case and Angus Deaton report on finding significant increases in mortality for middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women in the US.  (Although this article did attract some criticism for bias due to aggregation of age groups.) This essay by Janet Currie and Hannes Schwandt takes an altogether different line: it suggests that there is good news on the whole. Examining life expectancy at birth it is shown that mortality inequality between rich and poor counties declined significantly between 1990 and 2010. However, mortality rates and inequality in life expectancy have shifted a lot less for older age groups – a factor many previous ‘bad news’ type studies have focussed on. One explanation for such a trend is that there has been more smoking cessation in wealthier areas.The authors conclude then that for the youngest people, inequality is likely to remain low, while for older generations positive health behaviours such as smoking cessation are also likely to spread, improving inequality in mortality. However, one might suggest such conclusions are overly optimistic. Poverty and low socio-economic status have a complex relationship with health; reductions in mortality at lower ages may create a survivor bias so that the overall cohort has worse health on average now as those in poor health who may have died a number of years ago now survive to older ages. Nevertheless, Currie and Schwandt are right to suggest that policy makers should be made aware that improvements in mortality are possible and that evidence such as this should be used to mobilise efforts to improve the health of high risk groups.

The tax-free year in Iceland: A natural experiment to explore the impact of a short-term increase in labor supply on the risk of heart attacks. Journal of Health Economics [PubMedPublished 23rd June 2016

In 1987, owing to a change in the tax system in Iceland, no-one had to pay income tax. As a result labour supply increased substantially, which provides a neat natural experiment. In this study, the authors aim to examine whether increased labour market participation increases the risk of acute myocardial infarction (AMI). There is a growing literature of the relationship between macroeconomic conditions and health; a seminal article was Christopher Ruhm’s 2000 study that showed that economic downturns are associated with decreases in the overall mortality rate. However, the mechanisms that mediate such an effect remain elusive. Using panel data on individuals from 1982-92 linked to data on coronary events the authors show an increase in the risk of AMI in both 1987 and 1988 among men. However, some of the results seem improbably large, e.g. a 149% increase in the probability of AMI among self-employed men aged 45-64. While taken as a whole I think the evidence does suggest an increase in AMI risk in 1987, I was left with a number of questions: why no individual effect in the specification?; could the errors be serially correlated?; why wasn’t an instrumental variable approach used if the motivation is that the 1987 policy exogenously shifted labour market participation?; aside from having lower average risk, is there any reason to separately analyse men and women? These results also contradict an earlier study, also from Christopher Ruhm, that showed unemployment was associated with increases in deaths from coronary heart disease. At the very least, this study shows us that we just don’t really understand the complex interplay between economy, society, and health.

Gender roles and medical progress. Journal of Political Economy [RePEcPublished 3rd May 2016

Over the past century female labour market participation has improved as restrictive female gender roles have shifted and technological innovations have reduced the burden of many tasks traditionally assigned to women. Ha-Joon Chang posits that the invention of the washing machine was a more important invention than the internet in the way it revolutionised the labour market. This paper argues that the reduction in maternity conditions as a result of medical progress over the 20th century had a significant impact on female labour market participation. Indeed, they estimate that medical progress can account for 50% of the rise in female labour market participation between 1930 and 1960.

Photo credit: Antony Theobald (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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