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Obesity Linked to Long-Term Unemployment in U.S.

Hypertension, high cholesterol also more common among long-term unemployed

Americans who have been out of work for a year or more are much more likely to be obese than those unemployed for a shorter time, according to a new Gallup report. The obesity rate increases from 22.8% among those unemployed for 2 weeks or less to 32.7% among those unemployed for 52 weeks or more.

Gallup tracks U.S. obesity levels daily using Americans’ self-reported height and weight to calculate body mass index (BMI) scores. Individuals with BMI scores of 30 or higher are considered obese. Gallup also tracks the percentages of Americans who report that they have ever been diagnosed with various health conditions related to obesity, including hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

The results of the new report are based on nearly 5,000 interviews throughout 2013 with the long-term unemployed (defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as being unemployed for 27 weeks or more) and on more than 13,000 interviews with the short-term unemployed (those out of work for less than 27 weeks).

Gallup also tracks the percentages of Americans who say they currently have or are being treated for health conditions, such as hypertension and high cholesterol. In both cases, the differences between the short-term unemployed and the long-term unemployed are striking: Those who have been jobless for 27 weeks or more are nearly twice as likely to say that they currently have hypertension or high cholesterol.

Notably, Americans who have been unemployed for less than 27 weeks are somewhat less likely than those with jobs to have each of these conditions — but this is because they tend to be younger than those who have jobs (33.6 years vs. 42.6 years, on average), Gallup says.

While these results offer evidence of a strong relationship between unemployment and obesity-related health concerns, the causal direction is not clear. Unemployment may cause some people to engage in behaviors that lead to health problems, while pre-existing health conditions may make it harder for others to find and keep work. For many individuals, both dynamics may be at work, perpetuating a negative cycle of declining job prospects and worsening health.

Jobless Americans may be more likely to fall into such a cycle if a higher incidence of health problems hinders their efforts to find a good job. Those out of work for 27 weeks or more report experiencing an average of 4.7 days out of the past 30 when poor health kept them from doing their usual activities. That compares with an average of 2.8 lower-productivity days for those unemployed for a shorter period, and just 1.4 days for full-time workers.

Over the longer term, one of the most worrisome implications of these relationships is that many of those who have been unemployed for a prolonged period may suffer chronic health problems even if they successfully re-enter the workforce, the report observes. A 2009 study of Pennsylvania workers laid off in the 1970s and 1980s found that even 20 years later, these workers were 10% to 15% more likely to die in a given year than were those who had not experienced a job loss.

The Gallup report concludes that private employers’ high health care costs might lead them to avoid taking chances on those who pose greater health risks, particularly in a tenuous economic climate. As a result, candidates who are obese and who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more may have two strikes against them even before they sit down for an interview.

Source: Gallup; June 18, 2014.

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