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New Study Connects Late-Career Job Loss to Health Risks in Older Workers

You can probably guess that losing a job late in life affects your finances and your mental health. But did you know that it can also affect your weight?

A new study shows that late-career job loss combined with genetic risk can cause fluctuations in a person’s body mass index (BMI).

“We find that similar to race, gender, age, or other social factors that have been shown to exacerbate the scarring effects of job loss, genetic predisposition may be another avenue through which health inequalities emerge and deepen within a population,” says lead researcher Lauren Schmitz, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs.

“The Impact of Late-Career Job Loss and Genetic Risk on Body Mass Index: Evidence from Variance Polygenic Scores,” published by the journal Scientific Reports, explores the joint effects of genetics and the social environment. Schmitz and her fellow researchers looked at whether workers who lose their jobs due to business closures are more or less likely to gain or lose weight if they’re genetically predisposed to weight gain or loss.

The researchers used data from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study, which interviews 20,000 people over 50 every two years on changes in body mass index, unemployment, physical and mental health, and other issues. They linked socioeconomic information and genetic data on 9,393 full- and part-time workers ages 50 to 70. Controlling for various factors, the researchers found that older workers who both lost their jobs due to a business closure and were genetically at risk for fluctuations in body mass index were more likely to lose weight than comparable at-risk workers who were continuously employed.

In older adults, unintentional weight loss or frailty can indicate decreased resistance to stressors, resulting in greater vulnerability to disease and disability.

Schmitz’s co-authors are the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Julia Goodwin (Sociology), Jiacheng Miao (Biostatistics and Medical Informatics), and Qiongshi Lu (Statistics and Biostatistics and Medical Informatics); and Dalton Conley of Princeton University.

“Unemployment shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic have reignited concerns over the long-term effects of job loss on population health,” the authors write. They cite statistics showing that, in the U.S. alone, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for adults 55 and older jumped from 2.6% in February 2020 to as high as 13.6 % in April 2020.

What’s more, recent evidence indicates unemployment rates for workers 55 and older have exceeded those of midcareer workers since the pandemic began—the first time in nearly 50 years that older workers have faced higher unemployment than midcareer workers. So, the link between job loss, genetic predisposition, and BMI fluctuations could have severe consequences for the health of aging workers.