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50/50, has the recession: (A) dulled our wits, or (D) led to spurious claims?


From less sex and a spike in suicides, to either more crime or less depending on who you believe, the dreaded R-word has been used by academics to explain away dozens of society's ills.

This week another unpleasant consequence of the recession was added to the list, after a new study claimed that the downturn, and specifically unemployment, was making us stupid.

According to the study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, factors such as unemployment, low pay and slow-career advancement don't just affect our bank accounts, but also leave us at risk of cognitive decline in later life.

Using data from a major European study of 12,000 people across 11 countries, it found that men who had lived through one or more recessions between the ages of 45 to 49 had lower cognitive scores in later life, compared to men who didn't suffer from unemployment or underemployment in their late 40s.

Anja Leist, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Luxembourg who led the study, also noted a similar trend with women who experienced recessions between the ages of 25 and 44.

"We assessed cognitive function through tests of verbal fluency, immediate recall, delayed recall, orientation and simple mental arithmetic," she told the Independent. "And our analysis shows that experiencing one period of economic recession can equate to the same cognitive decline that we'd expect to see occur over the course of a year in old age."

Miss Leist's research come after a report last summer in the British Medical Journal which found the 2008-2009 recession might have driven more than 1,000 people to suicide.

It found that Britain's suicide rate had been steadily declining, but in 2008 there was an eight per cent rise in the number of men who killed themselves and a nine per cent increase in the number of female suicides.

Benjamin Barr, one of the report's author and a clinical lecturer at the University of Liverpool, has now turned his attention to the effects of public spending cuts on health and how malnutrition related admissions to hospital in England have doubled since the recession.

However he told the Independent: "Losing your job can have the same effect regardless of the fact of whether we're technically in a recession or not. Factors like debt, financial worries and housing issues all play into people's health regardless of GDP [gross domestic product] figures."

Last month a Greek government minister blamed the recession for a 10 per cent reduction in the country's birth rate over the past four years, citing austerity measures and soaring childcare costs. While last month the Medical College of Wisconsin reported a rise in the number of vasectomies carried out by American doctors during the recession.

Many assume the logic is that as the economy goes bad, people have more times on their hands for sexual entertainment. However the relationship between recessions and how much sex people are having is harder to prove, with most studies showing birth-rates remaining unaffected by economic factors.

In the UK's most recent recession latest from 2008 to 2009 there was 7.2 per cent drop in GDP but, there are few reliable figures on what this did to the amount of sex we had. There's no shortage of other reports though; some less serious than Mr Barr's work. For example earlier this month television entertainer Chris Tarrant claimed the recession was to blame for ITV's decision to axe Who Wants to be a Millionaire? after 15 years on air.

Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, said, many studies and recessionary claims are essentially "meaningless" and make "tenuous" links but the relationship between long-term unemployment and factors such as mortality, well-being and mental health "is a long established one."

Alluding to the fact that the crime rate in recent years has baffled expert he added: "Based on previous recessions there was some expectation that crime would go up in the recent recession, but as far as we can tell, it didn't. So we can only assume the relationship between economic circumstances and crime is very variable.

"Likewise I'm suspicious of reports you read saying people are waiting to delay divorces until they are more financially secure for example.

"Unlike mortality most of these social issues, such as crime rates or divorce rates, are long-term trends and a recession isn't likely to change that very much. Unless of course, we're talking about a deep recession like we are seeing in Greece or long-term stagnation in Japan, that's a different thing all together."