Among participants who were delinquent on their mortgages, 22 percent developed elevated depressive symptoms over the two-year period, compared with only 3 percent of non-delinquent respondents.

The Great Recession in general, and the housing crisis in particular, could have real human health consequences on an individual and a community basis, according to a study recently released in the American Journal of Public Health.


Researchers warn of a looming health catastrophe in the wake of rising mortgage delinquencies and home foreclosures. The study is the first long-term survey of the effect the housing crisis is having on older Americans.


Researchers focused on adults older than 50 and found high rates of depression among those behind in their mortgage payments and a higher likelihood of making unhealthy financial tradeoffs regarding food and needed prescription medications.


 “More than a quarter of people in mortgage default or foreclosure are over 50,” says the study’s principal investigator, Dawn E. Alley, assistant professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine. “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.”


That could erupt into health problems tied to bad eating habits, bad choices on taking medications and profound depression, scientists say.


“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,” says Dr. E. Albert Reece, vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland and dean of the University of Maryland’s 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.”


The researchers examined data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative panel study of Americans older than age 50. In 2008, 2,474 participants were asked if they had fallen more than two months behind on mortgage payments since 2006. The survey included questions designed to measure psychological impairment, general health status and access to important health resources. In predicting health outcomes, researchers controlled for demographic factors, health behaviors, chronic diseases, sources of debt and annual household income.


Among participants who were delinquent on their mortgages, 22 percent developed elevated depressive symptoms over the two-year period, compared with only 3 percent of non-delinquent respondents. And 28 percent of mortgage-delinquent participants reported “food insecurity,” compared with 4 percent in the non-delinquent group. In addition, the delinquent group reported much higher levels of not adhering to directions for taking medication for cost reasons (32 percent compared with 5 percent).


The study began just as mortgage delinquencies and subsequent home foreclosures started rising in the United States, driven mainly by increases in mortgage payments related to adjustable rate loans.


Alley says the health picture is even worse today because rising mortgage defaults are compounded by unemployment.


“Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the number of Americans with depression has been increasing along with rising unemployment,” she said, adding that mortgage counselors are seeing a rising tide of health issues.


“We did a separate nationwide survey of mortgage counselors and found that almost 70 percent of them said many of the clients they worked with were depressed or hopeless,” she continued. “About a third of them said they had worked with someone in the last month who expressed intent for self harm or suicide. These are very serious and clearly ongoing issues.”


Socially, of course, deteriorating health and the medical costs associated with treating people for depression, conditions tied to diet and the lingering consequences of improperly taking prescriptions to save money will be borne by communities, either directly for the indigent or indirectly through rising health insurance costs.


The study was prompted in part by the rapid rise in foreclosure rates that began four years ago following a dramatic increase in sub-prime lending by big banks. By 2009, 2.21 percent of all homes in the United States –– more than 2.8 million properties –– were in some stage of foreclosure.


Contact Bill at bill.knight@hotmail.com.