It will come as no surprise to anyone that money-related stress can affect your health. For the first time, however, researchers have shown that losing personal wealth can significantly raise the risk of death.
Man with empty pockets
Could losing a substantial amount of money shorten your lifespan?

Over the years, various studies have probed the relationship between personal wealth and health.

In general, wealthier people tend to live longer than people with less money. The reasons for this are complex and are still being teased apart.

The most recent study to investigate money’s impact on health set out to explore whether losing money could also impact longevity.

Losing a substantial amount of money is not something that anyone would enjoy. But, it appears to happen more frequently than one might expect.

The new study, carried out by researchers at Northwestern Medicine in Illinois and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, found that across a 20-year period, more than one quarter of middle- and older-aged people in the United States experienced “negative wealth shock.”

The impact of negative wealth shock

In this study, negative wealth shock was defined as losing 75 percent of one’s personal wealth over the space of 2 years. Although losses spiked during the Great Recession (from 2007 to the early 2010s), this figure was persistent across all types of economic climate.

The researchers also measured health outcomes for individuals with asset poverty, defined by the study authors as “zero or negative total net worth at study entry.”

The study, which was led by Lindsay Pool — a research assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL — is published this week in JAMA. It is the first to look at the relationship between negative wealth shock and life expectancy.

The team took data from the Health and Retirement Study, designed by the National Institute on Aging. The data gathering began in 1992 and they assessed a representative group comprising over 8,700 adults, who were 50 years and older, every 2 years in the U.S.

The findings make somber reading; according to Prof. Pool, “We found losing your life savings has a profound effect on [a] person’s long-term health.”

In fact, individuals who experienced negative wealth shock were 50 percent more likely to die in the following 20 years than those who did not.

Our findings offer new evidence for a potentially important social determinant of health that so far has not been recognized: sudden loss of wealth in late middle- or older age.”

Senior study author Carlos Mendes de Leon, Department of Epidemiology, University of Michigan

When they looked at those with asset poverty, the picture was similarly bleak; their risk of mortality over 20 years was increased by 67 percent. This finding was less of a surprise.

However, as Prof. Pool says, “The most surprising finding was that having wealth and losing it is almost as bad for your life expectancy as never having [had] wealth.”

Why are these people more likely to die?

Of course, in a study that looks at the outcomes of thousands of people in a population, causation is tricky to pin down, and there is unlikely to be a simple one-size-fits-all answer.

That being said, the study authors believe that there are likely to be two overarching themes. Prof. Pool explains, “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.”

These results back up previous studies that investigated the aftermath of the Great Recession; they found measurable changes in short-term health parameters, such as blood pressure, depression, substance abuse, and impaired cardiac function.

It is clear that these results pose challenges for medical professionals. “This shows clinicians need to have an awareness of their patients’ financial circumstances,” Prof. Pool says. “It’s something they need to ask about to understand if their patients may be at an increased health risk.”

She is eager to continue this line of investigation and dig deeper into the causes. “Why are people dying,” she asks, “and can we intervene at some point in a way that might reverse the course of that increased risk?”