ORLANDO, Fla. - Losing your home, or worrying about losing it, is enough to make you sick, says a recent study that offers insight into the toll the foreclosure crisis is taking on homeowners' health.
"Our findings prove yet again that economic well-being and physical well-being are connected," said Princeton University economist Janet Currie, co-author of the study, published recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
"The foreclosure crisis is having a significant impact on mental health as well as on a wide range of preventable conditions that are susceptible to stress," she said.
Economic researchers looked at four states - Florida, California, Arizona and New Jersey - among the hardest-hit by foreclosures. Florida ranks second in the nation in foreclosures behind California.
Each state was analyzed by ZIP code, comparing foreclosure rates to reports of emergency-room visits and hospital admissions for stress-related conditions from April 2005 through December 2009.
For every 100 foreclosed properties in a community, ER and hospital admissions went up 7.2 percent for hypertension and 8.1 percent for diabetes among those aged 20 to 49, the researchers found.
Visits and admissions related to anxiety increased 12 percent and for "malaise" - a vague category that included stomach upset and nausea - 7.5 percent among the same age group. Suicide attempts also increased, but authors noted that was based on a very small number of attempts overall.
"The study confirms what we're seeing in our clinic," said Dr. Luis Allen, medical director of the Florida Hospital Center for Behavioral Health.
"We're seeing more patients under financial stress whose mood, hypertension and diabetes are worsening. Often these patients feel so overwhelmed, they don't do what they need to do to take care of their conditions," Allen said.
When stress hormones rise, these conditions also worsen, he said.
"The housing crisis is forcing more families to move in together," Allen said. "That is often a point of friction, which causes more arguments, more alcohol consumption and substance abuse, more anxiety and depression, and even more suicide attempts."
The Princeton study captured the effects of stress not only on those going through foreclosure, but also on those stressed by making monthly mortgage payments on homes that were underwater, Currie said.
"It doesn't take a scientist to explain what happened to me," said Mark Miller of Winter Park, Fla., who lost his job 14 months ago and almost lost his house.
Miller, 46, was doing computer work for a stone-countertop company when the company's business dropped off and his position was cut. To stay in his house, now worth only two-thirds of the $150,000 he owes on it, he has drained his savings and retirement accounts, and has sold almost everything else he owns.
"It paralyzed me. I got so down, I could barely get up in the morning, let alone look for work," said Miller, who survives on unemployment and occasional laptop-repair jobs.
His family started worrying about his anxiety, he said.
"They noticed I was stuttering and sweating," he said.
His heart raced, and he got short of breath when he was sitting still.
Besides feelings of anxiety, other warning signs that financial stress may be affecting health are arguing more with family members, experiencing changes in eating or sleeping habits, and drinking more alcohol or using other drugs more, Allen said.
He recommends that those under financial pressure find a healthy outlet for stress before health problems become serious.
"Get regular exercise. Get out of the house, especially when you don't feel like it. Talk with friends. Maintain regular sleep patterns, and decrease the friction at home," Allen said.
Because Miller, who has Type 2 diabetes, no longer had health insurance, he avoided going to the doctor.
He sought help from InCharge, an Orlando, Fla.-based debt-counseling center, which helped him work out a reduced mortgage payment with his bank.
"I think this will help me relax," he said. "If I didn't have this house, I would be living in the woods."