Financial experts like to draw parallels between financial health and physical health. A well-planned budget is like a well-balanced diet, they say. Impulsive spending is like binge eating. Meeting with your financial advisor is like getting a regular physical. Sometimes, however, the relationship between financial health and physical wellness extends beyond the metaphors.
In fact, a lack of financial security among older adults can have a tangible impact on their longevity, according to a Northwestern Medicine and University of Michigan studypublished in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It found that adults ages 51 to 61 at the start of the study who lost more than 75 percent of their wealth in a two-year period had a 50 percent higher risk of dying in the 20 years following.
The reason for the relationship between loss and lifespan may be twofold, says Lindsay Pool, the study’s lead researcher and research assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. First, chronic stress caused by financial upheaval can have a detrimental impact on health. “Stress is really bad for us when it’s acute and long-term,” Pool says. And second, a loss in wealth may dissuade people from seeking or maintaining necessary health treatments.
Pool’s team found that losing a substantial portion of wealth wasn’t uncommon, with 26 percent of respondents reporting a “wealth shock” in the 20 years during which they were studied. Large-scale economic downturns are one reason a saver may see his or her nest egg crushed, but so are individual catastrophes, including crippling medical debt, divorce or widowhood. Those who experienced these wealth shocks were more likely to be women, nonwhite, have low levels of household income and poor health. “The way we call it a ‘wealth shock’ makes it sound like it only happens to wealthy people,” Pool says. “But this isn’t only an issue for the 1 percent.”
Since nobody is immune to wealth shocks, experts recommend preparing for the possibility you’ll experience a loss of wealth in the years leading up to your retirement. “The way to deal with this is to help people get prepared for what I call ‘the certainty of uncertainty,'” says Doug Lennick, CEO of think2perform and co-author of “Leveraging Your Financial Intelligence: At the Intersection of Money, Health, and Happiness.” “Are you prepared for whenever you need money, for whatever the reason, having a smart place to get it? If the answer to that is yes, then it will reduce the financial stress,” he says.
Incoming retirees have unique challenges, Lennick says. They must plan for a potentially decades-long retirement, which may require keeping some money in more volatile investment products like stocks, while keeping cash liquid in case an unexpected event derails or delays their retirement plans. Lennick recommends divvying up “buckets” of assets to meet various long-term and short-term needs and having several years’ worth of cash in an accessible account in case of emergency – or to tide you over while you wait for a stock market recovery.
Other experts agree that making good plans is the best thing you can do to prepare for a long retirement and uncertain future. That includes having the right insurance, reviewing asset allocation in investment portfolios, and making sure you’re taking advantage of employer benefits programs and reviewing them on annual basis, says Chris Whitlow, CEO of Edukate, a workplace financial wellness provider.
Another important way to weather a wealth shock – and maintain peace of mind – is to make sure you have your insurance needs mapped out and funded, experts say. Speak with a financial professional about your health insurance, long-term care insurance, life insurance, disability insurance and whatever else you might need to protect yourself and your heirs after an emergency. Note: If you’re looking to build a comprehensive plan to insulate you against wealth shocks, consider working with a financial advisor who adheres to a fiduciary responsibility, meaning he or she commits to acting in your best interest and isn’t a salesperson seeking to score a commission by selling products that play off your fears.
Sometimes, however, all your good plans won’t prevent you from losing some or most of your nest egg. In that case, experts recommend focusing on your mental response. “Try to manage stress and keep socially connected,” Pool says. “We know that social connection is extremely important to health and can help manage stress as well.”
If you’re pulling back from medical care because you can’t afford the treatments, reach out for help. Maybe a doctor can get you on a less-expensive generic drug or point you in the direction of a lower-cost clinic, Pool says. Lennick recommends engaging in a little self-therapy by reflecting on and reframing your new situation around positive thoughts and a plan of action. You may need to re-examine how retirement will look for you, and reassert your love for the things in life that make you happy such as your family and your health. Rework your mindset and come up with a plan for recovery, Lennick says: “It’s better self-therapy than another cocktail.”