Male unemployment levels affect birthweight

December 09, 1999

Unemployment among adult males may have an indirect and overlooked social cost - an increase in the incidence of low infant birthweight, according to researchers.

"Rising unemployment can affect the health of individuals associated with the unemployed person by both increasing the demands upon them and decreasing their coping resources," said lead author Ralph Catalano, PhD, of the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley.

The female partners of unemployed males commonly experience stress, which is also described as a mismatch between life's demands and available resources. Rising unemployment in the community at large can also induce stress, even in those not directly affected, by reducing support from friends and relatives. For pregnant women, stress is a risk factor for preterm delivery, very low infant birthweight (less than 1500 grams, or 3.3 lbs.), and subsequent infant illness.

Stress is thought to play a role in inducing preterm labor by its debilitating effect on the immune system. An economically stress-weakened woman may be less able to fight infection during the course of her pregnancy, a condition that increases her risk of premature delivery.

Very low birthweight infants account for just 1.2 percent of births. However, very low birthweight accounts for 64.3 percent of infant deaths in the US, according to the study. The results of the research appear in the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Catalano and colleagues searched for variations in birthweight levels over a course of more than 20 years of births in Norway and Sweden, two countries in which all residents, including the unemployed, have access to free prenatal health care. When they compared very low birthweight levels against levels of male unemployment in Norway and Sweden, they found a correlating pattern of increases and decreases among the two measurements.

"Approximately 188 very low weight births in Norway and 329 in Sweden could have been prevented if male unemployment had been kept to average levels over the 23-year study period," said Catalano.

The scientists chose to compare low birthweight rates with male unemployment alone, rather than female or total unemployment, because they were interested specifically in the indirect rather than the direct effects of unemployment on low birthweight rates.

"The health effects of being socially or economically connected with persons who become unemployed are, with few exceptions, largely ignored," said Catalano. "Ignoring these effects may lead to erroneously low estimates of the human cost of unemployment."

Programs that teach stress management and social network-building skills should be available to all members of the communities hardest hit by unemployment, conclude Catalano and colleagues.
The Journal of Health and Social Behavior is a peer-reviewed quarterly publication of the American Sociological Association. For information about the journal, contact John Mirowsky, PhD, 614-688-8673.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health . For information about the Center, call Petrina Chong, 202-387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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