Unsecured consumer debt and mental health outcomes in middle-aged and older Americans

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2014 May;69(3):461-9. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbu020. Epub 2014 Mar 17.


Objectives: Unsecured consumer debt may affect well-being negatively. We evaluated the association between unsecured debt and two distinct outcomes: depressive symptomatology and psychological well-being.

Method: Data were obtained from the 2006 Health and Retirement Study. There were 5,817 adults aged ≥ 51 who responded to a core survey and psychosocial leave-behind questionnaire. Depressive symptoms were assessed using the revised 8-item Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale. Psychological well-being was evaluated in a leave-behind questionnaire that had 3 dimensions: self-acceptance, personal growth, and purpose in life.

Results: Thirty percent of the respondents had unsecured debt. The magnitude or amount of unsecured debt and the occurrence of unsecured debt were significant predictors of depressive symptoms and lower psychological well-being. Perceived control over personal financial circumstances was a significant predictor of higher psychological well-being.

Discussion: In middle-aged and older Americans, unsecured debt has negative effects on mental health because of the associated depressive symptoms and decreased psychological well-being. The deleterious effects of unsecured debt on mental health are largely accounted for by perceived control over personal financial circumstances. Interventions enhancing older adults' control over personal financial circumstances may protect against the psychological decrements experienced by those grappling with unsecured debt.

Keywords: Depression; Finances; Psychological well-being; Quality of life..

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Depression / economics*
  • Depression / epidemiology
  • Depression / psychology
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mental Health / economics*
  • Mental Health / statistics & numerical data
  • Middle Aged
  • Quality of Life
  • Random Allocation
  • Retirement / economics*
  • Retirement / psychology
  • Retirement / statistics & numerical data
  • Self Concept
  • Social Class
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • United States / epidemiology