Carrying Debt Negatively Impacts Health of Older Americans: Report

Researchers have identified a connection between the amount of unsecured debt being carried by older Americans and an increased variety of health problems, including being more likely to be diagnosed with cancer or heart disease and even an impaired ability to handle regular activities like bathing a dressing, according to a published report.

Traditionally, older Americans have carried less debt than their younger counterparts, but that dynamic has been shifting in recent years, according to data compiled by researchers at the University of Michigan. In 1998, 43% of Americans over the age of 55 were carrying some amount of unpaid debt. By 2016, that figure had increased to 57%. The amount of debt is also on the rise. In 2016, the average older American had $62,874 in debts, up from $40,145 in 1998. The number of individuals whose debt-to-asset ratio was 80% — considered worrisome — doubled in that timeframe.

Digging into that data, researchers at the Urban Institute uncovered that older Americans with debts fare “measurably worse” across a range of health factors, including depression, an inability to work, and are more likely to have doctor-diagnosed health issues.

As the amount of debt being carried by an older American rises, so too does the depth and breadth of the health issues they are facing. If an individual was carrying debt equal to 30% of their assets, that person was 65% more likely to have trouble with daily activities compared to those with no debts. One possible reason for the difference in impact between secured and unsecured debt is that most secured debts – like cars or homes – are planned purchases, whereas unsecured debts, like credit cards and medical bills, often are not.

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