For people in their 50s and early 60s, a sudden and dramatic loss of wealth can lead a higher risk of death, according to a new study.
The research, published this week in JAMA by researchers at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, reviewed nearly 9,000 adults between the ages of 51 and 61, comparing those who experienced a “negative wealth shock”—defined as a loss of 75% or more of total net worth over a two-year period—with participants who maintained “continuous positive wealth.”
Using mortality data and interviews with family members, researchers found those that experienced a negative wealth shock demonstrated a higher risk for all-cause mortality compared to those that didn’t. The authors noted that the association between wealth shocks and mortality remained consistent across a range of people with varying net worth, an indication that “wealth shock may represent a potential risk factor for mortality across the socioeconomic spectrum.”
Exactly why a precipitous decline in wealth leads to higher mortality rates requires additional research. Less income can lead to reduced spending on healthcare or delayed tests and procedures. The “psychosocial stress of economic loss” may also be a contributing factor, the authors noted.
“What are the implications of these findings for patient care? With neither causality nor mechanisms firmly established, it is not possible to claim that any specific health intervention in response to a wealth shock is justified by compelling evidence,” Alan Garber, M.D., Ph.D., the provost of Harvard University and the school’s chief academic officer, wrote in an accompanying editorial. “Nevertheless, this study strongly suggests that a wealth shock is a risk factor for mortality in this age group.”
Research published in the Lancet last year showed that societal issues—including poverty—contribute to health inequity in the United States, but the JAMA study is among the first to study loss of income as it relates to health. Surveys show one in four Americans forgo medical care due to costs, and more Americans are afraid of their medical bills than of becoming seriously ill.