Recent research suggests that a personal financial disaster in middle age or later greases the skids to an early grave, but my own experience argues for a more nuanced view.
My Lovely Wife and I once spent a couple of eventful years running our own monthly newspaper, an experiment in entrepreneurial zeal and financial hubris that taught us many lessons, most notably that editorial panache contributes very little to advertising revenue. Bankruptcy and foreclosure predictably ensued. We hastily decamped from our spacious home — along with our two teenaged kids, two cats, and a dog — to a cramped, two-bedroom bungalow some friends owned and set out to reassemble our lives. A dozen years later, it appears we’re lucky to still be alive.
A new study surfaced last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggesting that such financial setbacks may be fatal. A team of researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Michigan followed a group of middle-age and older participants for 20 years and discovered that those who lost 75 percent or more of their total wealth were 50 percent more likely to bite the dust than their more financially fortunate counterparts.
“We found losing your life savings has a profound effect on a person’s long-term health,” lead study author Lindsay Pool, PhD, explained in a statement. “It’s a very pervasive issue. It wasn’t just a few individuals but more than 25 percent of Americans [who] had a wealth shock over the 20 years of the study.”
The link between lost wealth and languishing wellness is pretty straightforward: Going bust creates stress, which creates diseases that go untreated because it costs money you don’t have. “These people suffer a mental-health toll because of the financial loss as well as pulling back from medical care because they can’t afford it,” Pool noted.
That’s the big picture, but University of California, San Diego, researchers offer a more focused view in a study published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging. William Kremen, PhD, and his crew found that a single “negative fateful life event,” or FLE, can speed up the brain’s aging process by a little more than one-third of a year. In other words, the financial collapse MLW and I endured probably made our brains — and the rest of our bodies — several months older than our chronological ages.
FLE’s can produce chronic stress throughout the body, which has been linked to molecular aging in the brain, explains lead study author Sean Hatton, PhD. It damages your mitochondria, disables your immune system, and switches on genes you’d rather keep switched off. Hence, the Grim Reaper may arrive earlier than expected — particularly if you lack the wherewithal to treat the diseases that subsequently arise.
MLW and I are only a bit more than halfway through Pool’s 20-year research window, so I suppose there’s still time for one of us to kick off to prove her point, but I’d venture there are a few reasons why we might just sneak through unscathed:
No regrets. The genesis of our failed venture emerged from a deep need (on my part, I confess) to fulfill a long-held, if poorly conceived, dream to build a publication from the ground up. Years of ignoring this yearning had itself produced a low level of unwelcome stress, so diving in was in many ways something of a relief. Despite the financial and emotional tumult that resulted, we both knew we’d probably have felt more regrets had we never given it a shot.
It’s only money. Our favorite song during our brief tenure as publishing tycoons was an old Greg Brown tune, “All the Money’s Gone.” The shared bohemian tendencies we had cultivated during a quarter-century of precarious cash flow and general fiscal carelessness actually prepared us for the worst of worst-case scenarios. If you’ve never thought much about money, we discovered, losing it all isn’t as painful as you might expect.
All aboard. The whole wild-eyed adventure was my brainchild, but MLW and the kids all bought into it and agreed to participate, so when The Minneapolis Observer went belly-up, there was plenty of emotional support — and, happily, little blame — to go around. It wasn’t easy, by any stretch, but it could’ve been a lot harder. I still have a small framed poster MLW gave me shortly after we shuttered The Observer. “A Journalist is a Newspaper Man out of a job,” it reads. Still makes me smile.
There’s a great scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where the distraught George Bailey asks Clarence, his guardian angel, whether he happens to have $8,000 on him. When Clarence informs him that there’s no money in heaven, George gives him a wistful look. “It comes in pretty handy down here, bub,” he says. And so it does.
This is the other big lesson we learned in the wake of our entrepreneurial misadventure: There’s probably nothing inherently unethical about earning a steady paycheck from a large corporation. My gig here at EL has allowed us to calm our roiling financial seas, resettle in a home of our own, and bail the kids out after their own ill-conceived fiscal gambits collapsed (must be in the DNA). All without selling my soul.
Not everyone who hits bottom lands as softly as we did, so I hesitate to generalize about such things, but it’s no secret that numerous and varied forces can combine to send a guy to an early grave, many of which have little to do with wealth or the lack of it.
And it would be a shame, I think, if studies such as Pool’s discouraged folks from chasing their dreams, however outrageous they may seem. We’re all going to die, after all, so why not push your limits, take a risk, go for the gold?
Just think twice before starting a newspaper.