Older adults who lose their life savings may also lose years from their life, a new study suggests.
Looking at more than 8,700 Americans older than 50, researchers found that those who lost most of their net worth were more likely to die over the next 20 years.
Compared with people who held on to their wealth, those who lost at least 75 percent of it over two years were 50 percent more likely to die over the next two decades.
One of the most striking findings, researchers said, was how often families suffered that kind of financial loss.
More than one-quarter of study participants lost most of their wealth at some point over the 20-year study. Another 7 percent had no savings or other assets to begin with.
"If this has happened to you, you're not alone," said lead researcher Lindsay Pool, a research assistant professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Why is wealth loss related to an earlier death? The study cannot answer that question, Pool said. But, she noted, the stress of losing your financial security -- especially later in life -- could take a toll on physical health.
Plus, people who lose their savings may be unable to afford health care or prescriptions.
"Many people in this study would have been on Medicare," Pool said. "But they can still have had a hard time covering out-of-pocket expenses."
And then there are the everyday matters, she said. "Can you afford fresh, healthy food? What opportunities do you have for exercise? Do you live in a neighborhood where it's safe to go outside for a walk?"
The findings, published April 3 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, add to research looking at the health toll of heavy financial loss.
Recent studies have dug into the effects of the Great Recession that began in late 2007 and led to a doubling of the U.S. unemployment rate and millions of home foreclosures.
They found that people who suffered such losses had increased risks of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide.
The new study looked at the longer-term fallout, Pool said, and focused on older adults, who might be particularly vulnerable to the health effects of losing their nest egg.
Jason Houle is an assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. He has studied the association between recession home foreclosures and mental health.
"What I find particularly compelling about this study," Houle said, "is that it underscores that the Great Recession didn't just cost us our jobs, or our nest egg -- but that the toll of the recession can be measured in human lives." He was not involved with the current study.
The findings are based on 8,714 Americans who were ages 51 to 61 when they entered a long-term health study in 1994. They were followed until 2014.
Over those 20 years, Pool's team found, more than one-quarter lost 75 percent or more of their household wealth over a two-year period -- in what the researchers dub a "wealth shock." For most, that wealth consisted of bank accounts, a home and vehicles -- though those with a higher net worth often had businesses or investments, too.
On average, people who suffered a wealth shock were more likely to die during the study. There were 65 deaths per 1,000 people in the wealth shock group each year, versus 31 per 1,000 among people who held on to their assets.
In fact, the death rate in that wealth shock group was similar to that of adults who'd never built up any net worth.
The findings, Houle said, get at "what happens when the bottom falls out. And the answer isn't pretty."
The study couldn't prove cause and effect. And it's not clear what exactly is going on, Pool said. For one thing, the researchers looked at overall death rates, and not specific causes.
And it's possible, Pool said, that people in poorer health to begin with were at greater risk of a major wealth loss.
Her team did, however, factor in demographics and certain health measures -- including whether people had a history of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer or high blood pressure.
For more on the effects of the recession on Americans' health care, visit the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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