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When Job Loss Equals Weight Gain

Patricia Haynes in the UA College of Medicine has been awarded $3.1 million to study the relationship between unemployment and putting on pounds.

by University of Arizona
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University of ArizonaUnexpected job loss is one of the most stressful life events a person can experience, and it affects much more than one's pocketbook. It might also lead to weight gain, research suggests. 

Studies have indicated that unemployed people tend to have a higher body mass index, on average, than those who are employed. A new University of Arizona study will look at why that might be.

Patricia Haynes, assistant professor of psychiatry in the UA College of Medicine, has been awarded a five-year, $3.1 million grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, to study the link between job loss and weight gain. She will look specifically at how post-job-loss changes in sleep and social rhythm — a person's daily routine — might affect weight.

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"The idea is that unemployed individuals have had a disruption of their daily routine, which is like losing an anchor in the time structure of their day," Haynes said. "Their social rhythm becomes disrupted, which may then impact their biological rhythms and sleep, and increase the propensity towards excessive caloric consumption."

While existing data suggests that insufficient sleep can lead to changes in appetite and satiety hormones, few studies have examined that relationship in a real-world setting, Haynes said.

Haynes developed the idea for the study after listening to National Public Radio. A story about unemployment and the recession was immediately followed by a separate, unrelated story about the country's growing obesity problem. It occurred to Haynes that the two issues might be connected.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 65 percent of Americans are now overweight or obese. Research suggests that the obesity rate increased during the recession, but the cause for the increase is not entirely clear. Haynes believes that poor sleep quality and disruptions to people's daily routines after job loss could be largely to blame.

Haynes and her research team will follow 250 recently unemployed people over an 18-month period, using smartphones to capture information about participants' daily behaviors in real time. For example, participants might be prompted, via a message on the phone, to report on how they slept the night before, what kind of exercise they did that day or what activity they are doing at any given moment. Select participants also will be asked to take and submit photos of the food they eat. All participants will undergo weight and nutrition assessments in the lab.

Haynes is partnering with the Arizona Department of Economic Security's Unemployment Insurance Administration to identify potential study participants — people who involuntarily lost their jobs within six months of enrolling in the study.

She expects that some study participants will be more vulnerable to weight gain than others. Those hardest hit by the job loss might engage in more sedentary activities, such as watching TV or eating unhealthy foods, she said. At the same time, there may be a subset of more resilient people who see job loss as an opportunity to devote more time to exercising or improving their health.

Haynes also is interested in exploring the effects of re-employment — that is, how a person's sleep, daily routine and weight is impacted if he or she finds new employment during the course of the study.

Haynes hopes that the results of her study will inform health and weight interventions and programs for the recently unemployed.

"Sleep and social rhythms are highly amenable to change by behavioral intervention," she said. "Therefore, these data will help us determine whether typical weight-loss programs might be enhanced by also targeting sleep and social rhythms."

Dr. Ole Thienhaus, professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry in the UA College of Medicine, said the study could have a broad impact.

"Unemployment, chronic sleep restriction and obesity are highly prevalent social and public health issues," he said. "I anticipate that the results of this study will be of high relevance to a large segment of the U.S. population."

Haynes is a behavioral sleep medicine specialist and clinical psychologist who studies insomnia, stress and how people's daily behaviors affect sleep. As director of the UA's Stress and Trauma Recovery Clinic, her research includes studies looking at sleep and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her collaborators on the unemployment study include Emily A. Butler, associate professor of family studies and human development in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Duane Sherrill, professor of biostatistics in the UA's Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health; Graciela Silva, assistant clinical professor of nursing in the UA College of Nursing; Cynthia Thomson, UA professor of public health and director of the Canyon Ranch Center for Prevention and Health Promotion; Dr. Stuart F. Quan, professor emeritus of medicine, pulmonary and critical care medicine in the UA College of Medicine and the Gerald E. McGinnis Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School; George W. Howe, professor of psychology and psychiatry at George Washington University; and Nirav Merchant, director of information technology for Arizona Research Laboratories at the UA.