The Cleveland job market has not been kind to Karen Gaebelein, 56, and her health has suffered because of it.
"I lost my first job because the position was eliminated" in August 2008, said Gaebelein, from Broadview Heights, Ohio, who worked as a manager at two credit union offices.
"I've always been an emotional person but I noticed myself getting sadder," she said.
Gaebelein was diagnosed with depression. Her diagnosis is only one of the many health problems that can arise after losing a job, according to new research.
"Jobs are so fundamental to who you are and where you fall into society," said Kate Strully, an assistant professor in sociology at the State University of New York at Albany and the author of a new study. "In looking at what happens to people after they lose such a big component of their class position and social identity ... [the study asked] did they lose their job because they were sick or did they get sick because they lost their job?"
In the study, published today in the journal Demography, Strully examined employment data from 1991, 2001, and 2003 and found that losing a job is linked to a higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, diabetes or depression, even when the person finds a new job. Losing a job through no fault of one's own, if a company shut down, for example, led to a 54 percent increase in that person reporting poor health.
Job loss increased the odds of a person developing a new stress-related health problem by 83 percent, even in people who reported being in good health prior to losing their job, the study showed.
"Prior health cannot predict if someone loses their job because of establishment closures," Strully said. "When we really focus on cases where health is not an issue ... we're confident that the health changes following job loss reflects the effect of job loss."
Dr. Esther Sternberg, director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, said Strully's findings are in keeping with what is generally known about how stress affects health, particularly in times of economic turmoil.
"Uncertainty, uncontrollability and unpredictability are all potent triggers of stress response," Sternberg said. "The financial storm is a perfect storm of triggers."
But stress is a protective evolutionary trait. Sternberg pointed out that the stress response is necessary to avoid danger.
"A field mouse in a new field who is not stressed and goes to sleep will get eaten by the next cat that comes along," Sternberg said.
Health problems occur when stress pumps hormones and chemicals into the body over long periods of time.
"Every time stressors occur, these systems activate," said Dr. Charles Raison, director of the Mind-Body Program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "[The chemicals] extract a little price from the tissues in the body, in the brain."
Over long periods of time, stress causes wear and tear in the body's tissues which, depending on the person, can lead to heart disease, mood disorders or chronic pain.