The Effect of Home Heating Prices on the Mortality and Morbidity of Older Americans

  • Jayachandran, Seema (PD/PI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


Many American families spend a large share of their income on home heating bills. Paying for heating can cause financial strain, especially for the poor. At the same time, adequate heating is crucial for winter comfort in most parts of the country. Many households, therefore, face a difficult dilemma: They must either keep their home uncomfortably cold to save on heating or forgo other spending to pay their high heating bill. A high price of home heating worsens this predicament. Expensive heating could be detrimental to health through two channels. First, a high price will cause families to reduce their amount of heating. Exposure to cold ambient temperature has been linked to cardiovascular problems, respiratory infections, and other causes of morbidity and mortality. Second, if families do not cut back usage one-for-one when the price rises, their energy bills will increase, which can lead to cuts in other expenditures that affect health, such as food and health care. In addition, both the discomfort of being cold and the financial stress from high bills can be harmful to mental health. This research will estimate the effect of heating prices on health—mortality, physical health, and mental health—as well as on health-related household expenditures. The study will focus on older Americans, specifically those age 60 and older, as the previous literature finds that elderly health is particularly vulnerable to cold. The study approach combines spatial variation across the US in the energy source used for home heating and temporal variation in the national prices of different types of energy. Whether natural gas or electricity is used for heating varies significantly across communities. In addition, the prices of natural gas and electricity do not move in lockstep; notably, over the 2000 to 2014 study period, the boom in shale production of natural gas (“fracking”) caused natural gas prices to drop. The study approach uses the fact that families in areas more reliant on natural gas saw their home heating price decline as a result of the fracking boom compared to families in areas more reliant on electricity. First, the study will estimate the effect of home energy prices on mortality, both all-cause mortality and specific causes that have been linked to cold weather, such as strokes. Second, we will examine effects on physical and mental health using the Health and Retirement Study. Third, we will assess how household expenditures on food, prescription drugs, and other health-related items respond when energy bills increase or decrease, using the Consumer Expenditure Survey. Heating bills represent a larger share of income for the poor, so we will investigate whether heating prices have larger impacts on the health of the poor. The findings will be informative for policies that could lessen the financial burden of heating such as home-heating subsidies and home weatherization programs. This research also informs the debate about policies that affect US energy supply, and, in turn, energy prices, such as policies to curtail or encourage natural gas production.
Effective start/end date9/30/185/31/21


  • National Institute on Aging (1R03AG058113-01 REVISED)


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