Is Your Mortgage Making You Sick?

In a recent study released in the American Journal of Public Health, Dawn E. Alley, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology and public health from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, discusses the impact that mortgage default can have on an individual's health. The study focused on Americans 50 years and older and how they can become prone to depression due to the economic strain.

According to the study, more than one quarter of the people in mortgage default or foreclosure are over the age of 50. Is this age bracket more prone to experiencing a mortgage default or foreclosure?

That information is actually based on a report from AARP that we cite. This age group is actually less likely to experience a mortgage default or foreclosure relative to younger homeowners, but we think that they are an important subgroup, particularly with regard to the potential health implications of foreclosure. Because of pre-existing chronic conditions and a higher risk for poor health outcomes, older adults' health may be particularly sensitive to the health risks of unemployment or foreclosure.

Why are minority communities inordinately affected by the housing crisis in comparison to the rest of the communities in the United States? Why would it take them longer to recover?

In our nationally representative data, we found that nonwhites were more likely to fall behind on their mortgages, which is consistent with a lot of research showing that minority communities were more likely to experience default related to subprime lending. We also know that minorities have had higher levels of unemployment during the economic downturn. Because African American and Hispanic older adults have lower wealth compared to white older adults, the loss of a home may have particularly important long-term implications for these older adults, who may little to fall back on in terms of retirement savings.

Americans are facing health risks and the housing market depreciation contributes to their illnesses. What actions would you urge the government to take in order to help alleviate the health risks Americans continue to face?

We are hoping that data from our study and others like it convince policymakers to think beyond the economic impacts of the housing crisis and to incorporate health into policy options. Local budgets for providing safety net services like low-cost health care are very strained, and we think it's important to support state and local governments in providing these services. There are a variety of ways to incorporate health into the policies to address mortgage default. One option is to extend grace periods for people who are in foreclosure because of poor health. Another is to create mediation programs, which allow borrowers and lenders to meet in court during the foreclosure process and provide an opportunity for referrals to appropriate health services. Finally, we know that the nonprofit mortgage counselors who administer federal housing programs are on the front (lines) on these issues, but typically have no health training. We've begun working to try to train mortgage counselors and create opportunities for health screening and referral in the mortgage counseling process.

Many individuals are dealing with the housing crisis; due to this stressor, their health is also deteriorating. What advice would you give to these individuals? When should they seek help in learning how to cope with their situation?

What we hear from mortgage counselors is that it's important to try to address the mortgage difficulties as early as possible, when people still have options. In terms of health, I think the most important thing to know is that there are a lot of programs and resources out there that provide low-cost food and health care. A first step is to find a nonprofit loan counselor by going to Older adults can also call their Area Agency on Aging to find out about the range of supportive services available in their area.

We would like to thank Dawn E. Alley for sharing her research, discussing the effects that a mortgage default can have on an individual's physical and mental health, and providing suggestions on coping with these stressors.