Financial Security

Are You at Risk for a Wealth Shock That Could Kill You?

A financial shock is as dangerous as a heart disease diagnosis. The best medicine? Prevention.
Are You at Risk for a Wealth Shock That Could Kill You?
Image credit: SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Financial security expert
5 min read
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Middle-aged Americans who experience a major financial blow are 50 percent more likely to die early than those who don’t, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Related: Re­inventing Yourself: Life After a Business Failure

Meanwhile, about one in four people in the study have experienced what’s called a “wealth shock,” meaning they averaged a loss of about $100,000. Often that loss was a result of a drop in the value of retirement investments or a home foreclosure.

“A sudden loss of wealth  --  a negative wealth shock -- may lead to a significant toll on mental health and also leave fewer monetary resources for health-related expenses,” states a study summary. “With limited years remaining to regain lost wealth in older age, the health consequences of these negative wealth shocks may be long-lasting.”

Researchers tracked 8,714 adults ages 51 to 61 years and compared mortality rates over 20 years, for both those who lost substantial wealth and those who had continuous positive wealth. They found that those who experienced financial trauma had a significantly increased risk of mortality.

Some of the people in the study lost wealth during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Others lost substantial amounts before or since then. It didn’t matter if the economy was good or bad -- a wealth shock still increased the chance of their dying early.

A wealth shock is just as dangerous as a heart disease diagnosis.

The findings of the national Health and Retirement Study suggest that a wealth shock is as dangerous as a new diagnosis of heart disease, says Dr. Alan Garber of Harvard University.

Related: I Lost $3 Million In One Day. My Business Was Gone. But These Are the Steps I Had to Take First to Bounce Back.

Of course the study was not the first to document the link between financial and health problems. Stress over money has been linked to a wide range of health problems, from cardiovascular disease to depression and other mental health problems.

The American Psychological Association’s Stress In America survey found that 62 percent of Americans polled said they felt stressed about their finances. And the APA just released a new poll showing Americans are much more anxious today than they were a year ago. The greatest increase in anxiety was over paying bills, particularly among millennials. Yet it is baby boomers (those same middle-aged and older Americans at risk for early mortality from financial trauma) reporting the largest increase in anxiety levels (up 7 points from 2017 to 2018).

Financial and health problems reinforce each other in a vicious circle, with high healthcare costs erasing years of careful financial planning. Medical bills have long been the top cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States. And, beyond that, an estimated one in five Americans struggle to pay costly medical bills.

How likely are you to experience a wealth shock? Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter how much money you had to start. It’s the sudden loss of a substantial amount of wealth, and the sense of financial security that comes with it, that causes the shock.

There are two major reasons why most Americans are likely to experience a dangerous wealth shock:

Most people have the bulk of their money in investments like the stock market and real estate, which can rise or plunge at the drop of a hat. This is called “paper wealth,” meaning any rise in value is only an unrealized or paper gain -- and it may vanish just when you really need it.

What's more, most people have little or no safe and liquid cash reserves to tide them over when an emergency strikes, according to the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances.

So, how do you protect yourself from a financial shock that could cause you to die before your time?

Here are two common-sense ways that most people overlook:

  • Avoid the conventional financial advice to have most of your nest egg in volatile, unpredictable investments. A strong financial foundation must rest on a bed of safe and liquid cash reserves for stability, accessible resources and peace of mind. Invest only after you have a stable financial base to support you.
  • Build a safe and liquid rainy-day fund equal to at least two years of household income. This will give you the security of knowing you can weather the challenges that life inevitably throws at you.

These two simple steps can help you build the kind of financial security that can protect you from the health consequences of a sudden loss of wealth. And there’s one other simple step you can take to protect your health and wealth: Start to think of your health as a long-term investment in your future, just as you would your retirement savings portfolio.

Related: How 5 Successful Entrepreneurs Bounced Back After Failure

Every dollar (or every $10,000) you can save by taking care of yourself will pay dividends in your long-term quality of life -- and give you the ability to enjoy it.

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