Who needs an expert opinion when there's Google?  Using the search engine as a methodological tool, researchers discovered that the Great Recession may have increased a significant number of stress-related illnesses in the United States. Judging from the number of searches for a range of health concerns, including arrhythmia, back pain, congestion, chest pain, gastric pain, headaches, hernia, joint pain, and ulcers, a general worsening of Americans’ health may have occurred during the period of 2008 through 2011. “Google queries indicate that the Great Recession coincided with substantial increases in health concerns, hinting at how population health specifically changed during that time,” the authors wrote in their study. Does it matter to anyone that this research was supported in part by a grant from Google? Heck no, we want our DATA.

Trends

To understand the potential health effects of the Great Recession, a team of researchers downloaded U.S. search trends from Google’s public database. Google Trends automatically returns a weekly relative search volume (RSV) time series, reflecting proportion relative to all queries each week, then normalized on a zero to 100 scale to the highest observed search proportion. Using various formulas and calculations, the team isolated the top 100 significantly increasing search items during the period of 2008 through 2011.

They discovered about 205,000,000 excess health concern searches occurred during the Great Recession across the top 100 significantly increasing items. Searches for stomach ulcer symptoms rose by 228 percent and headache symptoms by 193 percent during the Great Recession and accounted for roughly 1,480,000 and 1,520,000 excess queries, respectively. Queries typically involved symptomology such as “anxiety symptoms,” for example, which spiked 57 percent or diagnostics as in the case of “heart rate monitor,” which escalated by 31 percent. 

This is not the first time Google has been put to such good use. Previous analysis of search engine data revealed that, for each one percent rise in home foreclosures in the U.S., the number of queries for psychological distress swelled by 16 percent. In a more recent study, researchers from University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health explored Google Trends to determine the relationship between sexually transmitted infection-related search engine trends and actual rates of STIs. They discovered Google’s data accurately reflected overall rates as well as regional differences in rates, though they did not assess whether the number of STIs rose or fell during the Great Recession. For those wanting to view the effects of this grim economic period through another lens, researchers from University of Miami analyzed the physical and mental health summary scores of the 12-Item Short Form Health Survey from the National Epidemiological Survey of Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC).

Well-Being

Health-related quality of life (HRQL) goes beyond the actual presence or absence of illnesses and refers instead to the way people perceive their physical and mental health. HRQL includes not only a personal or subjective evaluation of any negative health condition but also a subjective evaluation of the positive aspects of health. Wanting to understand whether mental health status improves or declines during tough economic times, the researchers of a study published in 2011 turned to NESARC, a face-to-face survey conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Representative of the civilian, non-institutionalized adult population of the U.S., this survey includes both a subjective HRQL score for overall physical functioning as well as a separate mental health score for psychological functioning. After analyzing the data, what did the researchers discover? An increase in the average state unemployment rate worsens an individual's HRQL. “Although the magnitudes of the changes are generally small, results show that mental health decreases more than physical health during tough economic times,” the authors wrote.

 

Sources: Davalos ME, French MT. This recession is wearing me out! Health-related quality of life and economic downturns. J Ment Health Policy Econ. 2011.

Althouse BM, Allem JP, Childers MA, Dredze M, Ayers JM.  Population Health Concerns During the United States’ Great Recession. Am J Prev Med. 2014.

Johnson AK, Mehta SD.  A comparison of internet search trends and sexually transmitted infection rates using google trends. Sex Transm Dis. 2014.