Background: Economic changes can be powerful determinants of health. In the late 1990s, South Korea experienced a steep economic decline. This study examines whether the massive economic changes affected trends in all-cause and cause-specific mortality in South Korea.
Method: Mid-year population estimates of 5 year age groups (denominators) and death certificate data (numerators) from the National Statistical Office of Korea were used to compute cause-specific age-standardized mortality rates before and after the economic crisis.
Results: All-cause mortality continued to decrease in both sexes and all age groups during the crisis. Cerebrovascular accidents, stomach cancer, and liver disease contributed most to this decline. A remarkable decrease in transport accident mortality rates was also observed. The most salient increase in mortality was suicidal death. Mortality from homicide, pneumonia, and alcohol dependence increased during the economic crisis, but these accounted for a small proportion of total mortality.
Conclusions: Short-term mortality effects of the South Korean economic crisis were relatively small. It appears that any short-term effects of the economic decline were overwhelmed by the momentum of large declines in causes of death such as stroke, stomach cancer, and liver disease, which are probably related to exposures with much longer aetiological periods. However, this study focused on rather immediate mortality effects and follow-up studies are needed to elucidate any longer-term health effects of the South Korean economic crisis.