In Elderly Americans, Rising Debt May Adversely Affect Health

Denise Revel had a history of developing blood clots, so in 2011, when her leg grew painfully swollen and hot to the touch, she knew what to do. She headed for the emergency room.

She recovered from the clot but could not pay the medical bill. Working as a fitness instructor, she had no health insurance. “I’ve always been financially challenged,” said Ms. Revel, 62, who lives with her daughter in Stockbridge, Ga. “I was a single parent raising two children.”

Four years later, when she was working as a part-time cargo agent for Delta Air Lines, a workplace accident severely injured her leg, leading to extended hospitalization and rehab. Workers’ compensation picked up most, but not all, of the medical costs. In addition to her still-unpaid E.R. bill from years before, she acquired thousands in additional medical debt.

With some older people finding themselves unable to dig out from debt, such dilemmas threaten any notion of a comfortable retirement and have generated alarm among economists and other researchers.