Study: Losing your life savings can actually be deadly

Kevin McKidd as Dr. Owen Hunt on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy"
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Everyone knows losing your life savings can be heartbreaking. But a new study reveals that it just might be deadly.

"We found losing your life-savings has a profound effect on person's long-term health," says Lindsay Pool, lead author of the study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and conducted by Northwestern Medicine and the University of Michigan.

Specifically, the research found that when middle or older age people lost 75 percent or more of their total wealth during a two-year period, they were 50 percent more likely to die in the next 20 years.

"These people suffer a mental health toll because of the financial loss as well as pulling back from medical care because they can't afford it," explains Pool.

And such "weath shock" — a large, sudden loss of net worth — is not uncommon.

"It's a very pervasive issue," says Pool, a research assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

"It wasn't just a few individuals but more than 25 percent of Americans had a wealth shock over the 20 years of the study," she says.

The study used data from the Health and Retirement Study from the National Institute on Aging, which began in 1992 and follows a representative group of U.S. adults (ages 51 and older). The 8,714 participants used in the Northwestern / University of Michigan study were first evaluated for a negative wealth shock in 1994 and then again every two years through 2014.

Not only did the new study discover the increased risk of death after suffering a sudden financial fallout, but it also looked at a group of low-income subjects who didn't have any wealth accumulated and were considered "socially vulnerable" in terms of their health. The data showed that this group's increased risk of death over the next 20 years was slightly higher at 67 percent.

According to Pool that means "having wealth and losing it is almost as bad for your life expectancy as never having wealth."

The study notes that previous research conducted on the heels of the Great Recession has also linked negative wealth shocks to short-term health changes, like depression, anxiety, suicide, impaired cardiovascular function and substance abuse.

"This shows clinicians need to have an awareness of their patients' financial circumstances," Pool says. "It's something they need to ask about to understand if their patients may be at an increased health risk."

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