Medical debt linked to worse health, early death: Study

Higher rates of medical debt are associated with poor physical and mental health, and premature death, according to a new study from the American Cancer Society. 

Researchers analyzed medical debt data and self-reported health statuses from 2018, which were compared to mortality rates from 2015 to 2019. Across 2,943 U.S. counties, increases in medical debt were correlated to elevated mortality rates for all causes of death, including cancer, heart disease and suicide. 

The findings were published March 4 in JAMA

From August 2022 to May 2023, American Cancer Society researchers examined self-reported health statuses, which were measured as the mean number of physically and mentally unhealthy days in the past 30 days, premature deaths measured as years of life lost before age 75, and mortality rates per 100,000 people. 

A 1  percentage-point increase in the population's medical debt was associated with 18.3 more unhealthy physical days and 17.9 more mentally unhealthy days per 1,000 people every 30 days. Each percentage point increase was also connected to 1.12 years of life lost per 1,000 people and a 7.51 per 100,000 person increase in age-adjusted all-cause mortality rate. 

"[Medical debt] is a problem that needs to be addressed systematically," Xuesong Han, PhD, lead author of the study, told ABC News.

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