April 3 (UPI) -- Being wealthy and then losing that wealth over a short period of time can lead to an increased risk of death, according to a new study by researchers in Chicago.
Researchers at Northwestern University analyzed data on 8,714 adults between 51 and 61, and found those who suffered a "negative wealth shock" -- defined as losing at least 75 percent of their wealth in two years -- faced a 50 percent increased risk of dying during the following two decades.
"That was surprising," Dr. Lindsay Pool, a research assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern, told NPR. "A 50 percent increased risk of mortality over a 20-year period is a lot."
The findings were published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"Whether it is the consequence of unfortunate decisions or unavoidable circumstances, financial loss and ruin can disrupt lives and can be both a result and a harbinger of catastrophic decline in health," Dr. Alan M. Garber, of Harvard University's Office of the Provost, wrote in an editorial published with the study. "The intriguing study by Pool and colleagues in this issue of JAMA raises an important question that has been easier to explore with anecdotes and hypothetical examples than by analyzing population data: is financial ruin a harbinger of physical decline? Specifically, are people who lose much of their wealth more likely to die?"
Participants were first assessed in 1994, and then every two years through 2014.
In the study, 2,430 experienced a negative wealth shock during follow-up, 749 had asset poverty at the beginning and 5,535 had continuously positive wealth without a change.
A total of 2,823 participants died during follow-up. In the group with positive wealth without a major financial loss, the crude mortality rate was 30.6 deaths per 1000 person-years. By contrast, the mortality rates were 64.9 per 1,000 person-years for those who experienced negative wealth, and 73.4 per 1000 person-years for those who were in poverty.
"You would hope that having had some money at some point would provide some protective effect," Pool said.
The researchers noted the earlier death risk exists even when factoring in existing health problems. But they said they couldn't rule out that people lost money because of health problems.
"Little is known about potential long-term health consequences of negative wealth shocks," the researchers wrote. "Furthermore, because medical expenses from major illness can be a primary trigger of negative wealth shock in middle-aged and older adults, it can be difficult to disentangle the effect of negative wealth shocks on subsequent health outcomes from the effect of the medical illness itself."
Several factors can be associated with the higher death risk: stress, depression and high blood pressure. And it can result in reduced spending on health-related goods and services.
"It could be not going to the doctor as much," Pool said,. "At this age group, a lot of people may be on prescription medications and they could not be taking their medications as prescribed because they can't afford the co-pays."
Garber said the prospect of losing wealth is daunting.
"This study by Pool et al warns that many individuals in the United States who reach middle age are at risk of losing most of their wealth, a misfortune that may be associated with shortened life," 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."