Foreclosure Is Hazardous to Your Health

Falling behind on mortgage payments harms more than just finances; the stress and strain can negatively impact physical and psychological health.  In 2009, 2.2 percent of all American homes — more than 2.8 million — were in some stage of delinquency.  Researchers examined data collected in 2006 and 2008 on nearly 2,500 Americans who took part in the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative sample of Americans aged 50 and older.  The data included information about general health, psychological health, income and whether the person had fallen behind on paying their mortgage.  People who were behind between 2006 and 2008 reported more depressive symptoms, increased food insecurity and were more likely to not take prescription medications as prescribed because of the cost.

“People are making unhealthy trade-offs when they’re trying to make their mortgage,” said Dawn Alley, an assistant professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.  “We think it’s a very serious issue.”  The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Nearly 32 percent of people who were having difficulty paying their mortgages didn’t take medications as prescribed because of costs, compared to the five percent who were able to make their mortgage payments.  “Depression, not taking medications and not spending enough money on nutritious food can exacerbate conditions you already have,” Alley said.

Nearly one-third of the people who were mortgage-delinquent reported fair or poor health compared to 19 percent who were able to pay their mortgages on time.  “The rise in mortgage defaults may have important public health implications that could ultimately prove costly to affected individuals, employers, the healthcare system, and society,” according to the study’s authors.

More than a quarter of people in mortgage default or foreclosure are over 50,” Alley said. For an older person with chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension, the types of health problems we saw are short-term consequences of falling behind on a mortgage that could have long-run implications for that person’s health,” Alley said.

“This study has pinpointed an issue that until now has been somewhat under the radar, but which threatens to become a major public health crisis if not addressed,” said E. Albert Reece, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland and dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.  “Through research such as this, faculty epidemiologists and public health specialists provide valuable information and perspectives that are useful for government and private policy makers as they work to meet the health and economic needs of Americans.”

This study was co-sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and was conducted with support, resources and use of facilities from the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Another study by Janet Currie of Princeton University and Erdal Tekin of Georgia State University shows a direct relation between foreclosure rates and the health of residents in Arizona, California, Florida and New Jersey.  The researchers concluded in a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research that an increase of 100 foreclosures related to a 7.2 percent increase in emergency room visits and hospitalizations for hypertension, and an 8.1 percent increase for diabetes, among people in the 20 to 49 age group.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, S. Mitra Kalita says that “Each rise of 100 foreclosures was also associated with 12 percent more visits related to anxiety in the same age category.  And the same rise in foreclosures was associated with 39 percent more visits for suicide attempts among the same group, though this still represents a small number of patients, the researchers say.  Teasing out cause and effect can be delicate, and correlation doesn’t necessarily mean foreclosures directly cause health problems.  Financial duress, among other issues, could lead to health problems — and cause foreclosures, too.  The economists didn’t find similar patterns with diseases such as cancer or elective surgeries such as hip replacement, leading them to conclude that areas with high foreclosures are seeing mostly an increase of stress-related ailments.”

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