Can your wealth affect your health? Researchers say yes.

As reported in The Washington Post, a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association has found two very alarming things:

(1) sudden losses of wealth between people ages 51 and 61 are surprisingly common; and

(2) they increase the person’s chance of dying quite substantially, from any cause.

Among the people studied by researchers, one quarter experienced “a 75 percent reduction in net worth over a two-year period,” what the researchers have called Negative Wealth Shock (NWS). And people who experienced Negative Wealth Shock were a staggering 50 percent more likely to die for any reason — what the researchers call “all-cause mortality.”

The study comes at a time when doctors and health care providers are increasingly focused on “non-medical” causes of illness. Economic factors are a big part of that (e.g., several studies have used the Great Recession as a natural experiment to study things like depression, anxiety, suicide, higher blood pressure, and substance abuse).

From the Post:

“What’s interesting is we find that someone’s starting point — whether your net worth is $50,000 or $500,000 or $5 million — it doesn’t seem to matter in terms of health risk. Losing 75 percent or more of that creates that increased risk of mortality,” said Lindsay Pool, a research assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who led the study.

Researchers aren’t sure why, exactly, wealth loss and health loss are related. More research is needed to explain the connection between money and health. For example, what’s more common: a serious health problem triggering a loss of wealth, or a loss of wealth triggering a serious health problem? Researchers aren’t sure yet.

They have theorized a loss of wealth could cause people to develop mental health problems, or that it could cause them to delay seeking medical treatment because they don’t have enough money to pay a doctor, hospital, or clinic for treatment.

It’s even possible a loss of wealth could delay the diagnosis of a health problem, which makes the health problem worse and triggers another loss of wealth, and so on. Researchers aren’t sure. They only know wealth shock is a large potential factor in their patients’ lives — and they need to find a way to make doctors pay attention to these “hidden” health factors.

From the Post:

In an accompanying editorial, Harvard University provost Alan Garber wrote that the study is a warning that middle-aged Americans are at risk of losing most of their financial resources, and possibly dying early as a result — and that physicians should take notice.

“A wealth shock is a severe disruption in the life of any patient that has implications for health behaviors and well-being,” Garber wrote. “An opportunity to build empathy and offer support will elude clinicians who fail to recognize such a profound event and its meaning for their patient’s future.”

***

Sources:

Johnson, Carolyn Y. “The Grave Health Consequences of a Personal Financial Catastrophe.” Washington Post, April 3, 2018, sec. Wonkblog. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/04/03/the-grave-health-consequences-of-a-personal-financial-catastrophe/.

Pool, Lindsay R., Sarah A. Burgard, Belinda L. Needham, Michael R. Elliott, Kenneth M. Langa, and Carlos F. Mendes de Leon. “Association of a Negative Wealth Shock With All-Cause Mortality in Middle-Aged and Older Adults in the United States.” JAMA 319, no. 13 (April 3, 2018): 1341–50. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2018.2055.
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